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The Slave Community

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Book Review: The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South by John W. Blassingame


     The pages of human history daubed in bloodshed relating to World War I & II, conflicts in the name of religion, ethnic clashes, rebellions of the blacks against the  whites, Nanking massacre, devastation unleashed by  atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ask the crying question. How to make this Planet Earth heaven-like? The answer is simple and direct.

Eyes full of understanding, hearts full of love and the life that refuses conflicts-enough, these alone are enough. The institution of slavery in USA, and the resultant exploitation of the unarmed, hapless black community is worst than any war. The unparallel cruelty on black children, women and men continued for centuries, for the economic aggrandizement of the white man. How the white plantation owners succeeded in nurturing the system of slavery in America and how the blacks fought against the oppression by organizing protests on the lines of militant trade unions of  the modern era?

     The book by Blassingame explains in detail the peculiarity of the Black experience in America. This is a fine introduction to the American slavery, how the system was created, nurtured, and systematically developed to subjugate the black community at every stage, without let up. Even the most cruel character in a suspense thriller, would refuse to believe the hardships of the life of blacks and the suffering they underwent from the moment of their capture, till their death.

Blassingame writes, “The process of enslavement was almost unbelievably painful and bewildering for the Africans. Completely cut off from their native land, they were frightened by the artifacts of the white man’s civilization and terrified by his cruelty until they learned that they were only expected to work for him as they had been accustomed to doing in their native land.”(p, 4)The slave labor system is entirely different from the normal labor system. The later has many right and responsibilities, the former has no rights; only the responsibilities to be carried out in the cruelest of working conditions.

     To illustrate by an example, a medical practitioner may prescribe medicines, but his prescription will not detail the mental conditions and agony of the suffering of the patient. Similarly the history of slavery, mostly documented by the white historians, has not been able to capture the heart and psyche of the black community. One among this community should be in a position to do justice to the issue. John Wesley Blassingame (23-3-1940-13-2-2000) is eminently suited to write on the subject.

He is the former Chairman of the African-American Studies program at Yale University. He is the pioneer in the study of American slavery. He has profound knowledge of American slavery. He is a renowned black scholar, historian and writer. The tools used by the author for crafting the book are slave interviews, diaries and memories of slaves and slave holders, folk songs, fugitive wanted posters and the like. They provide authentic picture of the life on the plantation. The African words, numerals and the vocabulary of the former slaves create a real-life situation in the description provided in the book.

     This is no ordinary effort by Blassingame. The historical analysis of an institution that has been in existence for a long time and passes through different stages is a tough task to document. The trends in comparative institutions need to be studied to arrive at conclusions.  The essentials need to be sifted from the non-essentials. The historian by temperament needs to be he impartial observer and shall write without bias, if it has to be true history. Basssingame has done justice to the subject. He has shown the insight of a professional trade union leader when he describes how plantation owners maintained law and order in their farms and how the slaves fought against the system.  He neither sides the blacks nor condemns the white.

He tenders the relevant data, facts and figures and let the reader draw his own conclusions. But the involuntary path which the slaves were compelled to tread, before being forced to the assimilation process in America, was not the easiest experience for any black to forget. He writes, “After their capture, the Africans were tied together by a rope and then marched hundreds of miles while suffering from thirst, hunger, and exhaustion. Consequently, many either died along the way or were reduced to a very weak and emaciated condition by the time they reached the coast.”(p,6)

     Blassingame reaches out to wide canvass of the aspects of the enslaved life, to enable the reader to understand the subject of slavery in its proper perspective. He takes the subject of acculturation by comparing how enslaved Europeans in African, in South America, in North America acculturated. He also tackles the often neglected area of impact of slavery—how southern Whites acculturated to African American culture. He observes, “In imitation of slaves, the white man’s circle of friends expanded.” (p,103-104).

 He details the family life of the slaves, and its harrowing realities.  He succeeds in giving the authentic picture of the real-life culture of the black slave in the Antebellum South. Blassingame is not willing bracket all types of slavery in one category. He gives description of the various types of slaves, depending upon the local conditions and the master-servant rapport established by some sections of the slaves.


     Blassingame has helped to check the cultural misinterpretation by the whites as for various forms of slavery. He makes reference to the combination of African and American elements that led “to the evolution of unique courtship practices in the slave quarters.”(p.158) Black Preachers are the strongest links between African and African-American societies.

The quite surprising observation however is, notwithstanding the fact that both practice the same religion in some areas, the ill-will between the two communities still persisted. This goes to prove that to establish Christ in the heart is more important than dangle cross on the neck.  The love-hate relationship between the white masters and their black subordinates continued for a long time, till such time the blacks were legally liberated by the provisions of the American Constitution, after the Civil War.







Blassingame, John W. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South

Paperback: 432 pages

Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA; 2 Edition (November 1, 1979)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0195025636

ISBN-13: 978-0195025637

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