50 of 52 people found the following review helpful
on January 10, 2003
I read this book for my history of American slavery class and I really enjoyed it. It is one of the books I did not sell back to the college when the semester ended. Blassingame focuses on the slave culture and uses such sources as folk songs, fugitive wanted posters, slave interviews and correspondence, diaries, and memoirs (from slaves and slave holders) to bring insight on life on the plantation. The author offers an extensive, well-organized bibliography which, alone, makes this book valuable.
The chapters cover the topics of enslavement and acculturation, the Americanization of the slave and the Africanization of the South, slave culture, family, rebels and runaways, stereotypes and institutional roles (i.e. the "Sambo" role), plantation realities, and slave personality types. This work also includes appendixes on such subjects as African words, numerals, and sentences used by former slaves, and a comparative examination of total institutions. The book is well-written and also offers numerous illustrations.
27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on April 2, 2005
Blassingame succeeds in sheding light on the real-life culture of the black slave in the Antebellum South: his African heritage, culture, family, acculturation, behavior, religion, and personality. Rather than concentrating solely on the planter - the traditional way of approaching the subject - Blassingame attempts to clarify and distill the essence of slave life through the filter of three eyewitness accounts. Two of them, the planter and the slave, give an insider's view of the plantation while the third witness, the traveler, views the relation between slave and master from the perspective of an outsider. Blassingame then utilizes the raw material of these personal observations to construct a detailed account of the day-to-day life of a slave - providing the reader with an insightful glimpse into the Negro's African heritage, the development of an Americanized culture, the formation of families, acculturation and behavior patterns when not under white supervision, religious preferences and beliefs, and personality traits.
The author makes the assertion that there were several types of slave personalities. Sambo - the submissive half-man, half-child - is the most well-known but was mostly a stereotypical manifestation of planter class racism and insecurity. Yet this caricature is the clearest portrait the southern planter has drawn of the slave, according to Blassingame. Sambo was actually but one of many variations, and was not even the most dominant slave personality. "Such stereotypes," asserts Blassingame, "are so intimately related to the planters' projections, desires, and biases that they tell us little about slave behavior and even less about the slaves' inner life, his thoughts, actions, self-concepts, or personality."
Blassingame also asserts that, because masters were unable or unwilling to impose round-the-clock supervision, their system of control was open at certain points. These systemic "blind spots" presented opportunities for the development autonomous Negro behavior as the slave's quarters, religion, and family helped to foster self-sufficiency. Rather than identifying with and totally submitting to the master, the slaves tenaciously held on to many remnants of African culture while simultaneously gaining a sense of worth among fellow residents of the quarters. This resulting underworld society flourished in defiance of the burdens imposed by enslavement.
In writing this treatise, the author attempted to tap into the feelings and attitudes of the entire plantation community. Since the thoughts and observations of slaves were seldom recorded (the teaching of reading and writing to slaves was illegal), Blassingale tends to lean heavily on observations by whites.
Additionally, the book devotes a lengthy section attempting to determine the basis of the stereotypically feeble-minded, anxiously subservient "Sambo" image. To this end, Blassingame relies on data from Nazi concentration camps to test the hypothesis that, in a system as tightly closed as either the plantation or the concentration camp, the slave's (or prisoner's) position of absolute dependency virtually compels him to view the facility's authority-figure as somehow "good" despite the evil emanating from the master/commandant (because, so goes the theory, the master also supplies everything of value).
There are also some enlightening discussions regarding the nature of slave marriage, family, religion, rebellion, and miscegenation. For example, the slave father was virtually without authority. Unable to protect his wife and children from discipline and abuse at the hands of the master, Negro fathers' resourcefulness in compensating for their institutionally-imposed weakness evokes simultaneous waves of sympathy at their plight and admiration for pluck.
Blassingame has done an excellent job presenting and applying his research. His "holistic" approach to the subject effectively endows the reader with a keen sense of how masters and slaves interacted and provides a comprehensive picture of plantation life that effectively reveals the complexity of the institution - as contrasted with the distorted picture often emerging from those who rely solely on planter records.
He successfully incorporates the primary accounts of plantation owners, slaves, and visitors in the Antebellum South to powerfully illustrate in straightforward manner what plantation life really felt like. He also makes effective use of social science disciplines like anthropology and psychology (especially when examining techniques the plantation owners utilized to maintain control and how the slaves resisted theses efforts). Furthermore, Blassingame resists the temptation to moralize about the living conditions and oftentimes barbarous exploitation of the slaves. Instead, he allows the reader to make up his own mind about the alien word of the antebellum Southern plantation and its "peculiar institution."
35 of 39 people found the following review helpful
A historical analysis of an institution is always a difficult thing to write. Extensive works must be read and analyzed, both primary and secondary in order to find trends within similar institutions. Furthermore, the longer the institution was in existance, the more documentation exists that must be sifted over in an effort to see how the institution has evolved over time.
With the difficulty of the task in mind, John Blassingame has done an excellent presenting his research in "The Slave Community." He successfully has used primary accounts of plantation owners, slaves and visitors of the Antebellum South to illustrate how plantation life really was. I use the term, "illustrate" as opposed to "paint a picture" because it more accurately describes what Blassingame has done in his book. He is straight forward in his approach. His attitude is "this is how it is. Here is how I know."
But more than explain how plantation life was for the slave, he shows how African-American culture assimilated to general European-American culture over the generations. He also makes extensive use of other social science disciplines including anthropology and psychology (especially when examining how plantation owners maintained order on their farms and how the slaves resisted the plantation owners). Furthermore, I admire how Blassingame has respect for his reader. In his forward style, he resists the temptation to moralize about the condition of the slaves and/or the barbarity of the whites. Instead, he has respect enough for his reader to let him make up his own mind about the various aspects of the "peculiar institution." After reading this book, I have a hard time picturing anyone attempting to support the plantation owners.
27 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on January 31, 2003
Blassingame wrote this book in the face of the insurmountable problem that a community can only be fully understood through tapping the thoughts and feelings of its members. Since slaves thoughts and feelings were so seldom recorded, the book tends to be based mostly on observations by whites. Nevertheless, even in observations of how slaves behaved, there is much that is not well understood. As a result, Blassingame devotes a lengthy section of the book trying to determine the degree of basis in fact of the stereotypical image of slave as demure and subservient. Ultimately Blassingame uses the example of Nazi-operated concentrated camps in World War II to reason through analogy to try to arrive at some kind of definitive conclusion.
This portion is not the bulk of the text, but there are several other points of discussion in the book that seem equally inconclusive in this same way. Nevertheless, there are also some very enlightening discussions such as the structure of marriage and the family, religion, slave rebellions, and miscegenation.
I found Blassingame's writing style very easy to read, and the material compelling. Despite my belly-aching on the inconclusiveness of many of the points in the Slave Community, I felt that this was a shortcoming imposed by the subject of the book, and not Blassingame's fault per se, and I still think it deserves four stars.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on September 8, 2005
In this revised and expanded edition, scholar John Blassingame describes not only what facts his researched uncovered, but also how he uncovered those facts. In particular, Blassingame's research emphasizes slave narratives and slave letters.
He explains that both of these types of documentation allow the researcher to enter the inner world of the enslaved person through his or her eyes, rather than simply accepting the plantation owners' views about slave life. His discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of historical resources along with his explanation of how to use internal and external evidence to assess the credibility of such sources offers a fine lesson in historiography.
In his choice of subject areas, Blassingame cuts a wide swath that overviews every core aspect of enslaved life. He begins with an intriguing examination of acculturation by comparing how enslaved Europeans in African, enslaved Africans in South America, and enslaved Africans in North America acculturated. He also explores the important but often neglected issue of the Africanization of the South--how southern Whites acculturated to African American culture.
Having laid this foundation, two moving chapters ensue. Blassingame documents slave family life with all its harrowing, horrible obstacles. Yet he also demonstrates the resilience and love of enslaved African American families. Next Blassingame addresses the many obstacles to rebellion and escape, putting to rest the notion that the lack of runaways in any way suggested acceptance of enslavement.
His final three chapters explore roles, realities, and personality types. At times his use of now-outdated sociological and psychological theory clouds the issues for modern readers. However, once sifted through and sorted out, these chapters continue to offer fresh information, if not always fresh insights.
Overall no researcher can afford to ignore Blassingame's contribution. Though many have critiqued some of his conclusions, all seem to quote him repeatedly.
Reviewer: Robert W. Kellemen, Ph.D., is the author of "Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction." He has also authored "Soul Physicians" and "Spiritual Friends."
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on July 28, 2013
this is one of the couple of dozen books ever written on african american history and the african american experience that has to be considered definitive. should be read by anyone seeking a more in-depth and nuanced understanding of chattel slavery and how it worked on a day-to-day basis as well as at a more overarching level. this research does an outstanding job of connecting enslaved africans and their american-born descendents to the culture, rituals, customs, and traditions of the motherland.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on November 10, 2013
I needed this book for my African American History Final Essay... It was very interesting, engaging and easy to read in the most part (take this from an ESL student). Great Book. I still have it and skim through it from time to time to remember how lucky I am for living in this time period... Very sad IMO
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on September 11, 2012
I found this book to be very insightful for numerous reasons but the frequent comparisons between slavery practices in ancient times, the same times but in different reasons and how the US slavery practices knew no bounds for psychological and physical horrors over all as compared to others and unlike many others there was no way to ever "graduate" to being free. This is just the tip of the iceberg on this book. I also like that the author humanizes the people victimized by this practice with out making victimizing them so what i mean is the author doesn't just have pity on them but tells of courage strengh and heroism. This is just one of many books i have read on my quest to learn the true history of America as a white woman i grew up in a white area and our coverage in American History class about slavery that actually talked about the experience and slaves lives was a paragraph of 5-6 sentences. So, I decided in order to truly know our history as a nation i have to know the history of all of people not just white people...it might take me a bit but I am working my way through all races, cultures and ethnicities....
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on October 18, 2010
I'm passionately enthralled with Blassingame's writing. This book provides a new perspective which complicates the familiar narrative of American slavery. His research is thorough and his languages is clear. It is difficult for anyone to read this book and not walk away feeling as though they've entered into a deeper understanding of years past. As far as I'm concerned, it's quintessential for anyone looking for a better understanding of early America and more generally, social history.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on March 25, 2013
This is a great read that my husband, myself and my daughter are sharing. It is great book that all families and students must read.