Tuesday, March 10, 2009

On Roll, Jordan, Roll

Note: the following relates very strongly to a post I plan on doing in the next couple of days on Huck Finn and his trusty sidekick Jim.

It must first be established that I was unable to finish Eugene D. Genovese's seminal Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York and Toronto: Random House, 1976) due to both its prodigious length and one annoyingly persistent headache. Therefore, this review, as it covers only the first book and about half the second, is appropriately limited; whatever complaints I make may well have worked themselves out later on. That being said, having read nearly half of it, I believe that the tone and content of what I did read can safely be assumed to characterize the half that I did not. As a writer, Genovese – whose forty-year career has spanned many schools, including my alma mater the University of Rochester – is engaging if biased. While exploring slave narratives and inquiries into the workings of the plantation system, one occasionally encounters, "like a flash of lightning in a serene sky," an outburst of anger directed at those oppressive and omnipresent capitalist ruling classes. (For example: he whines about "revolutionary bourgeoisie" on page 45 and has a brief rant on the proletariat, the bourgeoisie, and funeral customs on pages 201-202. On page 188, he makes a needless swipe at conservative movements.)

That is perhaps to be expected, given his background. Genovese self-identified as a Marxist and Socialist in the 1960s and openly welcomed a Viet Cong victory over American troops. Not surprisingly, the foundation for Roll, Jordan, Roll necessarily arises from this Leftist outlook. Genovese was initially inspired by the demands of Marxist anthropologist Marvin Harris for a materialistic (read: class) approach to slavery studies as an alternative to the idealism of Frank Tannenbaum and Stanley Elkins (indeed, the Marxists were some of Elkin's harshest critics, as discussed in David Bryon Davis's 1974 article "Slavery and the Post-WWII Historians"). At the same time, Harris' economic determinism, which posits the dominant force of material conditions in the molding social relations and their inevitable overriding of any other ideological or psychological factors, is ultimately ahistorical (as I've discussed before). "Marxism [has] offered a theoretical explanation for the whole of human history as well as for each particular epoch within in." Hegel, to whom Genovese frequently refers in Roll, Jordan, Roll, had developed a theory of history as an ongoing march towards ultimate truth, a veritable "World-Spirit" embodied in the separate histories of individual nations. Marx, on the other hand, substituted matter for the World-Spirit in his quest to unify everything from the Enlightenment to the French and Industrial Revolutions by invoking the rise of capitalism as the prime motivator of human events. These ideas of history as a universal story built on a base-superstructure, however, have since fallen from favor, especially in the wake of postmodernist attacks on the "meta-narrative" (i.e. Marxism) as intrinsically ideological and therefore obfuscating. Roll, Jordan, Roll, having been written in Genovese's Marxist stage, must be viewed within this overall historicist context. (You can read about this in greater detail in Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob's Telling the Truth About History.)

Elkin's Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959), the groundbreaking study Genovese disputes in Roll, Jordan, Roll and other works, had set up the Latin American and North American systems of slavery as two opposing paradigms: open versus closed. The latter system, as seen in the United States, was a product of the exploitive impulse inherent to "unopposed capitalism" run amok without either the restraint of institutional safeguards or a balance of cultural and political interests. These ideal forms, Genovese contends, are "too rigid, oversimplified, and deterministic." Genovese also sought to dispute Elkin's underestimation of the slaves' capacity for resistance and subversion, the strength and integrity of their separate culture, and their preservation of the African past.

Answering Harris' call, Genovese applies the Gramsci model of hegemony, named for Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, which attempts to explain how the capitalist ruling class can portray its sociopolitical dominance as both the natural result of universal participation and as necessary for the common good. Or, as Genovese himself explains it: "The idea of 'hegemony,' which since Gramsci has become central to Western Marxism, implies class antagonism; but it also implies, for a given historical epoch, the ability of a particular class to contain those antagonisms on a terrain in which its legitimacy is not dangerously questioned." The revolutionary bourgeoisie, he goes on to argue, during its European ascendance, ideologically justified itself by juxtaposing natural law doctrines against the old feudalism. Once bourgeoisie power was established, however, it turned and resorted to positive law in order to secure itself even as it continued to utilize natural law to defend property. Of course, the same thing happened in Communist Russia; therefore, even Marxist theory must culminate in positive law, with natural law acting as an extralegal yardstick. In the antebellum South, as in all societies, law was inevitably the principle medium of ruling class hegemony. At the same time, law is also an active entity that evolves "in dialectical response to the other classes of society," including, in the Southern case, the slaves. All ruling classes are different, of course, so each must rule differently. In a system built on human property and racial subordination – the right of an individual of one race to appropriate the person and labor of an individual of another race – the planters of the South drew on the traditional land-oriented paternalism of feudalism. Paternalism, says Genovese, is especially insidious, since it inextricably links the oppressed to the oppressor.

(But if the antebellum South was essentially pre-capitalist, then wouldn't analyzing it in a Marxist framework be anachronistic? Or is am I just ignorant?)

The slave South had inherited English law in addition to elements of the Roman and Germanic communal and feudal traditions. At the same time, the West had since adopted the "revolutionary bourgeoisie" notions of private property and the transformation of labor into a disembodied commodity. The slaveholders nevertheless could not simply tack property in man onto Western ideas of property in general, which rested on the assumption of marketplace equality. The southern system thus had to become implicitly dualist: while the state exercised authority over all people, it also recognized the authority of the slaveholders over the slaves as their property. The master subsequently became a lord, the human protector to whom slaves could always turn, not unlike the medieval serfs. This was the slaveholders' hegemony. "All slave and seigneurial societies throw up the figure of the padrone," Genovese explains, "who simultaneously protects and abuses, nourishes and punishes."

Inherent to the organic society of land-based paternalism is reciprocity, the linking of all individuals and classes together in a web of duty and obligation idealized as kindness and generosity. In exchange for his protection, the slaves themselves defined a "good master" as one who provided them with adequate food, clothing, and shelter. It was common practice to refer to the "family, both black and white" and masters frequently took pride in their slaves' abilities and accomplishments the way a father would for a child. "And therein lay dangerous implications," for Southern men at this time had significant leeway with regards to the treatment of wives and children that was also informed by a rigid sense of honor. The result was a doctrine of fundamental arrogance and domination that sanctioned cruelty to wayward familial subordinates. The slaveholders themselves, however, felt that they were being kind and benevolent. But "[a]gainst insubordination alone, we are severe," one is quoted as saying. Indeed, insubordination was tantamount to treason.

These patriarchs simply felt that they fulfilling their Christian burden of caring for people who lacked the ability to care for themselves because they were children, or female, or black. Abolitionism, they charged, demanded that they abandon their responsibilities and leave these helpless beings out in the cold. Here, obviously, a powerful racism came into play. Despite the implied misogyny of such an arrangement, the planters' wives were often its staunchest advocates, seeing themselves as ministers of a softening moral influence in the lives of both their husbands and their husbands' slaves. Paternalism exerted itself across class lines as well. Nonslaveholders, who ranged from respectable yeomen to "poor white trash," still economically and financially benefited from slavery, however much the system politically and socially oppressed them as well. In return for this monetary dependence, the wealthy slaveholders dealt with local whites generously and charitably, while their slaves got to see otherwise proud, independent white men willingly submit to their masters.

Those who romanticize and therefore do not respect the laboring classes fail to recognize their commitment to law and order, Genovese asserts. An oppressive social order is always preferable to chaos; people will not put much faith into a utopian scheme they have not experienced. For that reason, not even the slaves' own charismatic preachers called for open rebellion, though the masters often suspected them of it. Black religion in America was the heir to both the life-affirming celebration of the physical world found in African spirituality, the emotionally charged Great Awakening of the mid-eighteenth century, and the potentially political implications of Christian equality before God. The slaves' Christianity was not, however, the "proletariat" millennialism of the Quakers, Anabaptists, and other radical sects of seventeenth-century England who asserted that God was "no respecter of faces" and called for the destruction of Babylon and the building of Zion or New Jerusalem in a great and holy moment of social leveling. (See my post on The Many-Headed Hydra.) American slaves, by contrast, sought to accept what could not be helped and believed that deliverance would be a direct gift from God Himself, whom they strongly linked to Moses. The reliance of most black preachers on their masters' protection also severely circumscribed what their role, though they did develop certain modes of tone, gesture, and rhythm to indirectly communicate with their congregations. The result at the end of the day was an outlook that, though practical and realistic for the slaves' difficult circumstances, also created a vacancy of political leadership that forced African-Americans to look to whites to fulfill this position. Only with the emergence of Dr. Martin Luther King in the 1950s did this finally change.

Of course, this is not all of Roll, Jordan, Roll, though it perhaps lays out the foundations for the rest of the book. I did not even cover everything found in the parts I did read, yet one can probably see where other historians might in turn dispute Genovese's work. One disgruntled Amazon.com reviewer, who identifies herself as a "JD Ph.D who teaches and researches American slavery," gave Roll, Jordan, Roll one star and slammed it as "a nice, pastoral portrayal of slaves singing while they cut 'massa's' cotton" and attacks Genovese's use of Gramsci's hegemony as "a concept that can have no meaning in a regime of physical coersion [sic]." Fellow historian David Bryon Davis characterizes Genovese's interpretation and application of paternalism as "fuzziness" and acknowledges, in anticipation of reactions like the Amazon reviewer's, that his Marxism "may no longer provide protective coloration against the charge of sentimentalizing or romanticizing slavery." Furthermore, Genovese's repeated defenses of himself against charges of racial bias seems to imply "that only radical scholars can escape the liberals' typical condescension on race."

Marxism aside, Genovese does rely heavily on primary sources, including the New Deal interviews with ex-slaves in the 1930s; nevertheless, as he himself points out, these interviewees were only children during the slave years and usually escaped its worst abuses. Walter Johnson, professor of history at New York University, wonders if it "[c]an . . . be mere coincidence that so many examples of planters expressing ostensibly "paternalist" sentiments refer to slaves who have disappeared or are in the process of disappearing?" In other words, in what contexts were slaveholders whom Genovese quotes speaking or writing? Roll, Jordan, Roll is an intriguing, thought-provoking work, yet Marxism is an inherently an ideology that advocates certain political ideas and courses of action. Roll, Jordan, Roll, then, is inevitably tainted in this manner, as it rests on purely political foundations.


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