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Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made

by Eugene D. Genovese

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715622,663 (3.93)9
A profound, learned and detailed analysis of Negro slavery. It covers an incredible range of topics and offers fresh insights on nearly every page ... the author's great gift is his ability to penetrate the minds of both slaves and masters, revealing not only how they viewed themselves and each other, but also how they contradictory perceptions interacted.… (more)
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In this massive work, Genovese uses Marxist categories to analyze the world the slaves created for themselves in the Old South. His theme, which is documented by intensive examination of primary sources, is that the hegemony of the southern planters over the black slaves was based not only on physical power but on a paternalist ideology which the slaveholders adopted both to provide stability to a system ultimately based on violence and to salve their own consciences in justifying holding other human beings in bondage. Given the impracticality of insurrection, Genovese argues that the slaves accepted paternalism as an accommodation to their oppressive and harsh circumstances but turned it to their own use as a form of resistance to slavery. They turned the paternalistic gestures of the planters into non-legal rights or customs that became expectations that the planters could not ignore and in the process the slaves limited in various ways the scope of the planters’ power over them. The development of African-American Christianity played a key role in giving the slaves a sense of community among themselves that enabled them to face the challenges of slavery not just as individuals but as a collectivity and provided them a sense of self-worth which resisted the psychological demoralization that could so easily be the result of slavery. The result was the creation of their own world which became a part of American culture but also provided the basis for the development of black political culture to the civil rights era. (The book was published in 1972.)

The vast bulk of the book is devoted to examining a complete range of life experiences of the slave in the context of this analytical framework, which Genovese applies with a light touch and great sensitivity to the variations and differences in real life. He looks to statements of the slaves in their narratives and interviews as well as reminiscences after the Civil War. He also makes extensive use of the letters and other testimony of white slaveholders and white visitors from the North (e.g. Frederick Law Olmsted). He comes back again and again to the contradictions faced by both the slaveholders and the slaves. By law, the slaves generally had the status of mere objects, instruments of their owner. But in practice, slaveholders had to recognize that the slaves were full human beings that could not be managed purely as things. The slaves combined both accommodation and resistance in the relationships with their masters.

Genovese examines the complexity of these relations, and their inherent contradictions, in the law, religion, emancipation, the role of preachers and drivers, working in the “Big House” or the fields, life in the slave quarters, work ethic, marriage, funerals, cooking, language, surnames, children, old people, clothing and many more areas. He draws on West African roots, makes comparisons with slave culture in other parts of the Western Hemisphere including the Caribbean and Brazil and with the treatment of the working class in Europe and finds the roots of paternalism in medieval Europe. At the end he contrasts paternalist social values with the capitalist market economy in a short case study of Japan.

The paternalistic system consisted of reciprocal duties and obligations for both the masters and the slaves. Having persuaded themselves of their generosity and the slaves’ appreciation of it, the whites faced a rude awakening when the system collapsed and the slaves welcomed emancipation. ( )
  drsabs | May 20, 2020 |
This is an interesting book, except for the fact that Genovese gives both sides of the argument and comes down squarely on each side.
He has obviously read and reviewed every diary or comment by any slaveholder, and any slave who gave an interview, and some of the evidence, for example how these slaves could have obtained skills, is worthwhile. The Marxist slant, such as it is, does not condemn the book. JPH ( )
  annbury | Jan 23, 2012 |
I think the book could have been better organized. I felt like it started at the end talking about slaves leaving the plantations after the Civil War then going back to the history of paternalism among slaves. It made the first part very boring. Once I was into the history and the relational dynamics, I liked the book. It is very long, but it is a worthwhile read.

I will say it was wonderful to have gone through The Well-Educated Mind book list prior to this book (it is one of the last on the list). I had read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Up from Slavery, Souls of Black Folk, Native Son, Song of Solomon, Invisible Man, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Battle Cry of Freedom, and poetry of Langston Hughes, Rita Dove, and the incredible Paul Laurence Dunbar (my favorite American poet!). It gave me a good foundation for reading Roll, Jordan, Roll because he references many of these books in his work. ( )
1 vote Carolfoasia | Aug 23, 2011 |
Genovese's is an account of slavery based upon a class-based system of dominance, reinforced by racism (p. 3). Dominance, he stresses, is not as complete as earlier historians thought. Slaves themselves limited the extent to which whites exercised dominance, for example by developing African-American religion (p. 6).

Another source of resistance was embedded in the very relationship between overseer and slaves (p. 21). The slave might take their grievances to the master directly when treated badly by the master. Though they might be beaten for this. the end result was usually better treatment. Also the overseer was constrained as to the lengths he could go to in inflicting brutal punishment by the need to maintain morale in order to keep slave production high. A good crop meant that overseer kept his job (p. 15).

Another source of slave resistance stemmed from the ambiguities of the southern legal system (p. 28). The ambiguity existed primarily in this: slaves commit crimes against whites from time to time, if they are to be held accountable for this they must be judged to have wills (i.e., they must have a moral personality), and if they have wills they are human beings, so how can this be squared with chattel slavery? The result of this vicious circle was that masters appeared to their slaves as hypocritical, even weak. Slaves took advantage of this (p. 30).

Genovese's section on Slave work ethic is an especially interesting compliment to that of Herbert Gutman. Slaves too fought for control of production in a market-driven economy. Breaking equipment, refusing to do more than a certain amount of labor, they forced their masters to make accommodations. Wisely, enlightened masters recognized that they had to give the slave space. Resorting to a characterization of the slave worker as "lazy" and naturally averse to work, they justified the overtures they made to the slaves as "workers." Just as the northern factory manager needed to accommodate ethnic celebrations in order to curtail the worst abuses of blue Monday, so too the plantation owner allowed the slaves their corn shucking parties. Cotton production proceeded at a different pace than factories, and the nature of slave labor and the compromises it entailed were lost on the Northerners as they occupied the South after the war. In examining hegemony in the master-slave relationship, Genovese provokes a re-evaluation of what the new south would face in integrating slaves into industrial discipline.

It would also seem fruitful to look comparatively at the experiences of slaves in factories and immigrant labor in factories in the south. We read about yeomen farmers identifying with planter aristocrats out of race prejudice. At the North, Irish immigrants rioted in NY after the emancipation proclamation made the war "to free the slaves." It seems unimaginable that slaves in factories in the antebellum south would not have elicited the same negative response from immigrant whites.
3 vote mdobe | Jul 24, 2011 |
granddaddy of them all ( )
  ncunionist | Apr 25, 2008 |
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A profound, learned and detailed analysis of Negro slavery. It covers an incredible range of topics and offers fresh insights on nearly every page ... the author's great gift is his ability to penetrate the minds of both slaves and masters, revealing not only how they viewed themselves and each other, but also how they contradictory perceptions interacted.

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