Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Multicultural Review: African American Slaveholders

This entry was originally posted on 12 November 2010, as part of a library and information science (LIS) class on information services to diverse patrons.

Edward P. Jones' The known world, introduced me to a segment of nineteenth-century African Americans that I never considered: slaveholders. Before I read Jones' novel, which narrates events surrounding the death of Henry Townsend, a fictional African American slaveholder, I (like many other people) assumed that all slaveholders were white and that slavery was that "peculiar institution" of the American South.

Jones' novel and the four other works in my collection depict a more complex sociopolitical phenomenon. Michael P. Johnson's and James L. Roark's Black masters: A free family of color in the Old South examines a real life African American slaveholder, William Ellison. In Black slave holders: Free Black slaves masters in South Caroline, 1790-1860, Larry Koger examines the social and economic reasons that motivated African Americans to own slaves. Sherrill Wilson's New York City's African slaveholders: A social and material cultural history demonstrates that this "peculiar institution" was not limited to the American South. The final selection is a widely lauded documentary, Africans in America: America's journey through slavery. This work does not focus on African American slaveholders, per se. Rather, it provides a more traditional perspective that (not surprisingly) largely ignores this population. I chose this documentary because it depicts the story of Denmark Vesey, a free and relatively wealthy African American who violently opposed slavery. This inclusion serves as a foil to the other material in the collection.

Jones' novel is the foundation of this collection. I chose other material that would elaborate on or complement that work, which is part of my personal collection. I located Black slave holders and New York City's African slaveholders through a subject search in the WSU catalog. Almost by accident, I located both Black masters and Africans in America in the University of Michigan-Dearborn catalog.

Because the collection often challenges and complicates popular notions of the transatlantic slave trade, it seems a good selection for a general reader, although I would also recommend it to young African American readers. Perhaps a reading group or a librarian can use it to develop a program that honestly discusses the complex nature of American slavery. In many of these texts, readers often discover that the slave trade was a pervasive economic system that seemed as viable to many free nineteenth-century African Americans as the inherently exploitative nature of capitalism often seems to their early twenty-first century descendents.

I enjoyed reviewing these works, and I hope that my reviews prompt readers to check out this material from a local library. I think I learned to be more critical of the narratives that have been "handed down" by well-meaning teachers and scholars. This is not to say that I do not trust the traditions. I simply learned that almost all sociopolitical phenomena are most complex than most history books can effectively describe.

FICTION (Print)Jones, E.P. (2003). The known world. New York: HarperCollins.

At the center of this novel is a rather simple story: Henry Townsend, a prosperous African American slaveholder in antebellum Virginia, dies. His wife, Caldonia, has an affair with Moses, a slave who oversees the plantation. Moses plans the escape of his wife and child in order to wed Caldonia, and thus take his master's place. Surrounding this plot, however, are complex narratives that evoke the morally ambiguous world of slavery. The novel aptly shows that slavery and its attendant racial politics (like our modern capitalism) paradoxically facilitated and constrained social and political agency.

Modern readers may consider Henry Townsend a race traitor, especially since he is an ex-slave himself who knew the harsh realities of slavery. But Jones shapes a sympathetic narrative. Townsend initially treats Moses, his first slave, almost as a brother. They work together. They even wrestle in public, like a couple of schoolboys. But this ends when William Robbins, Townsend’s former master, observes this display and reminds Townsend that his new role is circumscribed by certain expectations:

“The law expects you to know what is master and what is slave. And it does not matter if you are not much darker than your slave. The law is blind to that. You are the master and that is all the law wants to know. The law will come to you and stand behind you. But if you roll around and be a playmate to your property, and your property turns around and bites you, the law will come to you still, but it will not come with the full heart and all the deliberate speed that you need. You will have failed in your part of the bargain. You will have pointed to the line that separates you from your property and told your property that the line does not matter”(123).

Laws and traditions restrict Townsend’s interactions with Moses. He may be a slave master, but he does not have the freedom to erase the social lines that define his position. To do so would be to endanger his authority and that of other slaveholders. I argue that the scene demonstrates double-edged sword of slavery. The line that circumscribes a slave’s position also defines and limits the master. Townsend is metaphorically a slave to social conventions. Townsend asserts his authority by striking Moses, but this action ironically reinforces his relatively limited social power.

This restricted power is also seen in the characters' racial politics. Throughout the story, relatively affluent free African Americans are sometimes harassed and humiliated by lower class white "patrollers" who would demand to see their "freedom documents". The novel contains an episode about Fern Elston, a light-skinned free African American teacher who can pass for white. Like her brothers and sisters, she could have relocated and lived a privileged life of a white person. Instead, she chooses to exercise a certain (restricted) power within her community.

In the early days of the patrollers, the first thing out of [Fern's] mouth when they stopped her was "I will not abuse you in word or deed and I do not expect you to abuse me in word or deed. And I do not want my service abused"...Then she would produce papers showing she was a free woman and that would be followed by a bill of sale for the slave. She waited patiently for them to look over the papers. Some of the patrollers could not read, and she was just as patient with them, as the illiterate man made a show of pretending to read. (131).

To almost any stranger, Elston is a white woman and thus should have the unrestricted movement afforded to her race. But because they know she is a free African American, the patrollers (over) exercise their duties. Like her white counterparts, she pay taxes that finance the patrollers. However, she does not have the freedom to publicly berate them. Free or not, she is an African American woman whose freedom of movement is at least partially circumscribed by less educated poorer whites. After a "disagreeable" counter with a literate patroller, she speaks with Robbins, whose informal power insures that she will never have to tolerate such restrictions. However, she continues to produce her papers and speak the same dialogue.

I believe she does this to display a certain amount of power over the patrollers. But such actions also demonstrate Elston's continued vulnerability, despite Robbins' intervention. The novel takes place in the early to mid 1800s, a period that saw Denmark Vesey and other free African Americans instigating slave rebellions. As such, Elston's status may have considered a potential threat. Asking for her papers was one less violent method to keep that population under control. Her maintaining the practice may have been to publicly show that she was not a danger.

I just described two of the many contradictory moments that make this novel a classic. Some critics have called this work a companion piece to Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Others have compared its very loose structure to the works of William Faulkner. Having read both authors, I agree that The known world has a future place in the canon of English literature. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in challenging, yet highly entertaining prose.

NON-FICTION (Print)Johnson, M.P. & Roark, J.L. (1984). Black masters: A free family of color in the old south. New York: Norton.

William Ellison, an African American slaveholder in antebellum South Carolina, is Henry Townsend’s real life counterpart. Like Townsend, Ellison is an anomaly. As Johnson and Roark note:

At a time when most Afro-Americans, like other Americans, worked the soil, Ellison was a cotton gin maker, a master craftsman. When nearly all free Afro-Americans were the poorest of the poor, Ellison was one of the wealthiest free persons of color in the South and wealthier than nine out of ten whites. Ninety-four out of one hundred Afro-Americans in the South were slaves in 1860, but Ellison owned a large cotton plantation and more slaves than any other free person of color in the South outside of Louisiana, even more than all but the richest white planters. (Preface, xi-xii)

Until I started researching items for this collection, I never heard of Ellison. His existence complicates my assumptions of nineteenth-century free African Americans. I assumed that a successful free African American male must have lived in the industrial North or in the West, with is opportunities. I believed that NO free African American male could be a successful entrepreneur in a highly racist society. But once again, the nuances and complexities largely ignored in high school text books remind me that social reality often cannot be summarized accurately.

I must admit that I was initially hesitant about the potential quality of this book. I assumed that it was written by slavery apologists who wanted to demonstrate that at least some African Americans were complicit in the slave trade. But its tone seems balanced and objective. The authors attempt to describe Ellison in the context of his time, not according to our early twenty-first century expectations about race and racial identity: "

William Ellison confounds expectations we are tempted to project onto him…A brown-skinned man who would be called black today, Ellison did not consider himself to be a black man but a man of color, a mulatto, a man neither black or white, a brown man. (xi).

We would argue that Ellison occupies a liminal space; he belongs to neither the highly circumscribed spaces occupied by the vast majority of African Americans nor to the relatively privileged spaces enjoyed by many whites during that period. Like the fictional Fern Elston described above, Ellison is well aware of his vulnerability. As the authors note:

Freedom was [Ellison’s] most prized possession. It allowed him to found, preserve, and endow his family. But no free person of color could be confident of freedom in the antebellum South. Freedom marked a Negro as someone whites had to watch. Within the tight constraints imposed by whites, Ellison used his freedom as he saw fit (xv).

The authors explore this liminal space of free blacks throughout the text. They argue that Ellison and his peers maintained a middle ground that was largely “invisible” to the majority of whites. It was an open secret that was tolerated within the white community, as long as it did not cross racial propriety. Even when educating African American became illegal after 1834, many free African continued the practice in the privacy of their own homes (224).

I was surprised how the reality constructed in Jones’ fictional work echoed Johnson’s and Roark’s description of a historical era. It is like different variations of a theme within a symphonic piece. When I chose these works, I did not expect to find such cohesiveness. I like that fiction can accurately mirror fiction and that a biography corroborates the truth of a fiction.

I was equally surprised that the non-fiction was as entertaining as the fiction. I usually get bored with scholarly monographs. The language is often too complicated and pretentious. However, Johnson and Roark create an engaging narrative that tells a fascinating story. I checked this book from a library, but I may seriously consider adding it to my personal collection.

NON-FICTION (Print)Koger, L. (1995). Black slaveowners: Free black slave masters in South Carolina, 1790-1860.

Ellison's life provides just one example of nineteenth-century African American slaveholders. in South Carolina. What will a regional study demonstrate? According to Larry Koger, a macro- examination demonstrates that free African Americans in the antebellum South purchased slaves for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they purchased relatives and friends and kept them because they could not legally release them. More often, however, African American slaveholders during that era "believed that slavery was a viable economic system and exploited the labor of black people for profit" (1 and passim). However, Koger is careful to document and explain the complex and apparently contradictory motives.

For our early twenty-first century perspective, this apparent race traitor behavior seems disturbing. How can African Americans buy and exploit other African Americans? But we may to need to re-examine our sociopolitical assumptions about capitalism and its often exploitative nature. Many African Americans do not question the potentially harmful nature of using people to make money. Scores of employers hire African Americans for low wage, low status jobs. Some of these employers are African Americans. Yet, we do not consider these employers race traitors because they use African Americans to make a profit. They hire voluntary, not enforced labor. Employees can quit at will. Yet poor economic conditions may force African Americans to work for substandard wages, and some African American employers take advantage of that situation. We do not consider it "evil" or "cruel". We consider it natural.

Perhaps this slight re-orientation will help us understand nineteenth-century free African American slaveholders, especially those who were slave themselves. As noted above, slavery may have been deemed a viable economic system. Nonetheless, these ex-slaves must have suffered from psychological conflicts. Koger speculates:

The sentiments of many freed slaves who became slave masters were very ambiguous towards slavery. In spite of spending years in bondage, the freed slaves harbored no ill feelings toward their former masters and showed no signs of a deep hatred for the institution that enslaved them. The ex-slaves who owned human chattel regarded slavery not an oppressive institution but as an economic necessity upon which their livelihood depended (31).

Freed slaves who owned relatively successful businesses often had to hire labors to keep up with demand. A modern African American employer often has no problem finding employees from a number of racial and ethnic groups. Freed slaves in South Carolina had two options: other free African Americans or whites. In a rare move, Koger offers a politically correct explanation: "The availability of free labor [as opposed to slave labor] was primarily restricted to free blacks because most southern whites found it difficult to work for black persons" (38). Most southern whites, in other words, did not want to degrade themselves by working for African Americans. The supply of other free, skilled African American labor was limited. Often this population would work for themselves. As a result, freed slaves turned to the most readily available labor pool: slaves (38).

Koger's text constantly reminds us that we may not want to harshly judge free African American for the business decisions they made. They were constrained by prevalent racial and political attitudes. As the other previous reviewed works echo, African American slaveholders were in a middle space. They may not have been subjected to the whims of a master, but they were not the absolute masters of their collective fate. As the cliché goes, they were between a hard place and a (very sharp) rock.

Because it does present a fair and balanced description of this relatively unknown phenomenon, I would recommend Black Slaveowners to anyone interested in the complexities of the slave trade. Like the other texts in this collection, it challenges popular traditions about slavery and uncover the complex realities of the era. The transatlantic slave trade was one of the most brutal periods in American history. But this book shows that even during the period, at least some of the oppressed rose above circumstances to partially gain social and economic power.

NON-FICTION (Print)Wilson, S. D. (1994). New York City's African slaveowners: A social and material culture history. Studies in African American history and culture. New York: Garland Pub.

Less than 150 pages, Sherrill D. Wilson’s text provides a quick, but fairly informative overview of African American slaveholders in colonial New York. Wilson’s partially builds on Koger’s theory of African American slave ownership as primarily a commercial venture and Carter G. Woodson’s influential thesis that most African American slaveholders owned friends and relatives whom they wanted to liberate, but were legally prohibited.

Wilson is highly skeptical of the records about African American slaveholders in colonial New York:

The nature of the records that document the lives of African Americans is incomplete. Often compilations contain inaccuracies and statistics tend to contain undercounts or other errors. The biased nature of the “official records and documents” themselves cannot be overstated. Our knowledge of any aspect of the African and African American past in America has long depended upon the biased reports, histories, diaries, etc., of European colonists and their descendents, who viewed Africans almost universally as property to be bought and sold, and later as second class freed people.

Despite these biases, Wilson seems to have found sufficient evidence that some free African Americans in New York held slaves. For data about 17th and 18th- century African American slaveholders, Wilson relies on manumission compilations. The scholar notes that the first documented case of African American slavery occurred in 1661. Anthony Angola, an orphan of two slaves from the Dutch West Indies Company was, as Wilson notes, “adopted” by Dorothy Angola for 300 guilders. Wilson interprets this adoption as slavery because the child was the offspring of slaves and thus considered a slave. Wilson quotes historian McManus, who notes that during the time period, slaves from the West Indies could be purchased for 300 guilders (23).

Wilson does not have many examples of slavery practiced by African Americans in New York. As the scholar notes, “the phenomenon of African ownership of enslaved Africans …was practiced on a much smaller scale than in colonial Southern cities” (21). This should not be surprising. The colonial South was largely agricultural. Labor intensive crops like tobacco, cotton, and rice support the economy. As such, large numbers of slaves were needed. In the industrial North, however, slaves were used mainly as household servants (23).

This lack of narratives is mildly disappointing, especially after reading the other texts and watching the PBS documentary, I expected much more hard evidence about New York’s slave history. I also expected the scholar to more rigorously challenge Woodson's thesis (In the conclusion the scholar confirms that New York African American slaveholders were benevolent). Nonetheless, I included this text in this collection because it complements the other material and provides information that does not necessarily overwhelm readers with too much technical information. While Wilson’s text is not a comprehensive as Koger’s, it does prove that African American slaveholders were not restricted to the antebellum South and that the "peculiar institution" of slavery was not just a southern phenomenon

I recommend this text with a caveat. Much of the book focuses on the social and material conditions of 19th-century free African Americans New Yorkers and not much on the rare slaveholding section of this population. Many readers may like that this information aptly contextualizes the social, economic, and political reason some free African American New Yorker may have chosen to own slaves. For others, it may seem too speculative to include in this collection. I disagree. Speculation is sometimes the only thing we can do to re-member (as Toni Morrison may suggest) the past.

NON-FICTION (DVD)Bagwell, O. (Executive Producer) (2000). Africans in America: America's journey through Slavery. DVD. South Burlington, VT: WGBH Boston Video.

Africans in America begins with the story of the relative failure of Jamestown, the first permanent colony in the United States, and ends with the outset of the Civil War in 1860. For six hours, this well-produced PBS documentary relates some very surprising facts and traditional heroic tales about the history of early African Americans.

For instance, it relates the story of Denmark Vesey. In 1822, Vesey, a relatively wealthy free African American, orchestrated what would have been one of the largest uprisings in U.S. history. However, several of his conspirators leaked this information in exchange for freedom. Vesey and dozens of his co-conspirators were executed. Vesey's failed attempt is told with the just right amount of reverence to inspire many young African Americans to feel good about their historic predecessors.

One of the few surprises occur early in the documentary. Viewers are introduced to Anthony Johnson, a very wealthy free African American slaveholder in mid-17th-century Virginia. Although it mentions that Johnson and his family ran a plantation, it fails to acknowledge that Johnson had African American slaves. Instead, the producers focused on the apparent egalitarian nature of the early colonies before slavery became an economic institution. It claims that Johnson was treated with the same respect as any landholder. For viewers who thought that slavery was always a colonial institution, they will be surprised that being African American did not always equate to a slave status. The documentary's emphasis on the gradual change to African American slavery is laudable. But they do seem to overlook this crucial detail about Johnson.

I think I understand this omission. Africans in America narrates the very complex story of slavery in the United States. To suggest that any African American was complicit in the trade is to admit that some African Americans had the same mindset as white slaveholders. And this admission would have the same effect as Holocaust historians admitting that a few Jewish people facilitated that tragedy. It would add a level of complexity that threatens to negate the documentary's celebration of those who fought against slavery (e.g. Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, and John Brown). It would mire it in uncomfortable truths.

Ironically, this is why I picked this DVD for this collection. I believe that the other texts are more meaningful when compared against this well-produced, PBS documentary. The known world, for example, seems a richer novel because it demonstrates how an exploitative economic system is psychologically harmful to all participants. It dares to portray the complex motives of slaves and slaveholders alike, including those slaveholders who were African American. It even makes Koger's thesis about the commercial motives of free African American slaveholders in the antebellum South balanced and objective. In short, it is a much needed contrast to other material.

CONCLUSION: AFRICAN AMERICAN SLAVEHOLDERSIn this review, I have described a collection of material about African American slaveholders in the antebellum South. With the exception of the documentary, I picked these works because they challenge  traditional notions of the transatlantic slave trade. Like the various authors, I do not necessarily defend African Americans owning other African Americans. But as a person who is somewhat comfortable with another exploitative economic system--capitalism, I certainly cannot demonize those who took the opportunity to empower themselves and their families in a blatantly racist environment. The best that I and others can do is to understand the past on its own terms. Perhaps the materials in this collection will be just one small step to doing just that.

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