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The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South is a book written by American historian John W. Blassingame. Published in 1972, it is one of the first historical studies of slavery in the United States to be presented from the perspective of the enslaved. The book contradicted those historians who had interpreted history to suggest that African-American slaves were docile and submissive "Sambos" who enjoyed the benefits of a paternalistic master-slave relationship on southern plantations. Using psychology, Blassingame analyzes fugitive slave narratives published in the 19th century to conclude that an independent culture developed among the enslaved.
African Cultural Retention and Slave Culture
According to Blassingame, African culture was not entirely removed from slave culture through the process of enslavement and "was much more resistant to the bludgeon that was slavery than historians have hitherto suspected. " "African survivals" persisted in the form of folk tales, religion and spirituality, music and dance, and language. He asserts that the retention of African culture acted as a form of resistance to enslavement: "All things considered, the...Africans enslaved in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America appear to have survived their traumatic experiences without becoming abjectly docile, infantile or submissive" and "since an overwhelming percentage of nineteenth-century Southern slaves were native Americans, they never underwent this kind of shock [the Middle Passage] and were in a position to construct psychological defenses against total dependency on their masters. "
Blassingame notes that many of the folk tales told by slaves have been traced by African scholars to Ghana, Senegal and Mauritania, and to peoples like the Ewe, Wolof, Hausa, Temne, Ashanti, and Igbo. He remarks, "While many of these tales were brought over to the South, the African element appears most clearly in the animal tales. " Southern slaves often included African animals like elephants, lions and monkeys as characters in their folk tales.
As Christian missionaries and slave owners attempted to erase African religious and spiritual beliefs, Blassingame argues that "in the United States, many African religious rites were fused into one—voodoo. " Voodoo priests and conjurers promised slaves that they could make masters kind, harm enemies, ensure love and heal sickness. Other religious survivals noted by Blassingame include funeral rites, grave decorating and ritualistic dancing and singing.
Slave owners and state governments tried to prevent slaves from making or playing musical instruments because use of drums signaled the Stono Rebellion in 1739. In spite of restrictions, slaves were able to build a strong musical tradition drawing on their African heritage. Music, songs and dances were similar to those performed or played in Africa. Instruments reproduced by slaves include drums, three-stringed banjos, gourd rattles and mandolins.
Blassingame concludes that cross-cultural exchanges occurred on southern plantations, arguing that "acculturation in the United States involved the mutual interaction between two cultures, with Europeans and Africans borrowing from each other. " Blassingame asserts that the most significant instance revolved around Protestant Christianity (primarily Baptist and Methodist churches): "The number of blacks who received religious instruction in antebellum white churches is significant because the church was the only institution other than the plantation which played a major role in acculturating the slave. " Christianity and enslaved black ministers represented another aspect of slave culture which the slaves used to create their own communities.
Slave marriages were illegal in southern states, and slave couples were frequently separated by slave owners through sale. Blassingame grants that slave owners did have control over slave marriages. They encouraged monogamous relationships to "make it easier to discipline their slaves. ... A black man, they reasoned, who loved his wife and his children was less likely to be rebellious or to run away than would a 'single' slave. " Blassingame notes that when a slave couple resided on the same plantation, the husband witnessed the whipping and raping of his wife and the sale of his children. He remarks, "Nothing demonstrated his powerlessness as much as the slave's inability to prevent the forcible sale of his wife and children. "
Nevertheless, Blassingame says that "however frequently the family was broken it was primarily responsible for the slave's ability to survive on the plantation without becoming totally dependent on and submissive to his master. "
Children observed fathers demonstrating two behavioral types. In the quarters, he "acted like a man," castigating whites for the mistreatment of himself and his family. In the field working for the master, he appeared obedient and submissive. According to Blassingame, "Sometimes children internalized both the true personality traits and the contradictory behavioral patterns of their parents. " He believes that children recognized submissiveness as a convenient method to avoid punishment and the behavior in the quarters as the true behavioral model.