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Customer Review

95 of 116 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars This is selective and filtered history, December 23, 2010
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This review is from: A Renegade History of the United States (Kindle Edition)
I was particularly intrigued by the argument that slaves were more free than working whites. You have to be more well read and intellectually gifted than your typical 'merican to understand the nuance of the argument and grasp the full context of the freedom that Russell is discussing.

But Russell's defense of his premise relies on anecdotal evidence, and he does not give proper weighting to the suffering imposed on slaves or on ex slaves in the decades that followed the Civil War. His suggestion that most plantation owners treated slaves delicately because they did not want to lower production by angering their slaves is just not adequately defended with hard evidence. There is plenty of evidence to counter this proposition, but you won't find it refuted or even acknowledged in this book.

There are many interesting aspects of American history discussed in this book that make it a worthwhile read. But it is lacking in rigorous scholarship. Being revolutionary and anti-establishment doesn't make the arguments true, it just makes them provocative.

This book made me stop to think and reconsider, but it did not leave me with the feeling that there was a kernel of a great revelation here, and that it is something I would like to dive into more deeply.
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Showing 1-10 of 12 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Feb 7, 2011 5:08:58 PM PST
this is one book that discusses a portion of US history. Unfortunatly it has to be antedotal because it discusses the history of the lower classes and the role of sin in US society which are not going to be as well documented as the middle class let alone the elites. It does provide a window into the lower classes and their role in the history of the United States.

Posted on Feb 12, 2011 11:02:30 AM PST
For a first person account, you may find instructive "A Southside View of Slavery; or Three Months at the South in 1854" by Nehemiah Adams

Posted on Mar 13, 2011 10:43:52 AM PDT
slavery is a minor topic of this book but it was interesting to read a more diverse historical observation. we need 'em all. bear in mind that history is written by victors not losers. slavery of any kind is bad but remember, in the course of 2,000 yrs of documented human history, less than a few hundred years is free of slavery. as such, like prostitution, there must be a utility reason that is mutually acceptable to both the slave owners and the enslaved for this to exist. nonetheless, it is interesting. i find this book a total fun read, like how prostitutes helped to established freedom for women, from walking alone on the street to wearing make up, from financial independence of women to wearing red dress. this book is extremely enlightening. i will write my own review on this book soon....

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 13, 2011 4:46:00 PM PDT
The suggestion that slaves find utility in being slaves is a fantastic claim that deserves fantastic evidence. You can always find such "evidence" in the rationalizations of the slave masters. But opinion in not evidence.

Here is one of Frederick Douglass's findings of utility in being a slave:

Why am I a slave?Why are some people slaves and others masters? Was there ever a tie when this was not so? How did the relation commence?
Once, however engged in the inquiry, I was not very long in finding out the true solution of the matter. It was not color, but crime, not God, but man, that addorded the true explantion of the existence of slavery; nor was I long in finding out another importan truth, viz: what man can make, man can unname.
I distinctly remember being, even then, most strongly impressed with the idea of being a free man some day. This cheering assurance was an inborn dream of my human nature - a constance menace to slavery - and one which all the power of slavery were unable to silence or extinguish.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 13, 2011 9:10:28 PM PDT
As slavery has been part of societies the world over since the very beginning. There were (and are), no doubt, slaves who find utility in the relationship.

Deuteronomy 15:16-17 provides instructions for how to proceed in this circumstance:
"Then thou shalt take an awl, and thrust it through his ear unto the door, and he shall be thy servant for ever. And also unto thy maidservant thou shalt do likewise."

as an aside, in light of the above, it has always struck me as humorous that so many men (most of whom probably object to slavery) think taking on the mark of a slave (an earring) is attractive.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 17, 2013 9:16:18 AM PST
applewood says:
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Posted on Jan 13, 2014 8:41:28 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 13, 2014 8:50:44 PM PST
Ruivano says:
I agree with your assessment but gave the book one more star for the sheer entertainment value plus the author presenting information based on research that we never get to hear, though obviously he is using research to build a case to support his hedonistic worldview. But don't all historians do that -- use history to build a case? This one was just far more interesting and outrageous.

I like you rolled my eyes at many of his conclusions and suspect that he rolls his eyes at what he is about to dare to say as well -- in the interest of being provocative. Disagree on your whites freer than slaves statement though -- my takeaway is that the author feels that whites are more constricted in their culture and that blacks, slaves or not, are just more authentic. As someone who has lived amongst both I'd say he's spot on. He does tend to make these outrageous conclusions but I think that is just to get people to read the history.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 4, 2014 2:20:42 PM PST
Oscarthe4th says:
1. Chattel slavery was never mutually beneficial. Otherwise, why would a master want the responsibility of slaves? You have slaves to make money and sometimes to gain social prestige. Slaves get to work until dead with the profit always going to others.
2. Some forms of slavery allowed slaves (or at least their children) to enter the larger society. That's a very different system from what was in the US.

Posted on Mar 2, 2014 10:26:21 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Mar 2, 2014 10:28:43 AM PST
Chimonsho says:
This is a nuanced review of a sophisticated, complex work. Russell's book doesn't fit easily into liberal or conservative pigeonholes, so many Amazon reviewers struggle to make sense of it.

One example is when a reader's post argues for enslavement being "useful" to the slaves. This is quite specious. Apart from some regions where people sold themselves into bondage to avoid starvation, slavery was mostly useful to slavers, not their victims.

Calvert is probably correct in saying that Russell seeks to be provocative (i.e. thought-provoking), leading to some overstatements on his part, & to misunderstanding on some readers' parts.

Posted on Oct 15, 2014 10:37:12 AM PDT
Urizen says:
I haven't read this book. I looked it up because someone had it on the bus today, and I was curious. There is little original about the idea evidently expressed by Russell regarding the notion that some slaves found slavery "useful." I don't know what Russell is using for evidence. I am assuming he has some. There certainly is some. Another reviewer mentioned the recordings of ex-slaves made during the Roosevelt administration. I think this refers to the interviews of former slaves conducted by WPA workers during the Depression era. These recordings and the information they contain have always been considered somewhat controversial by black people and some historians. These skeptics remind us that many former slaves during this period still did not trust white people and so gave them answers that they thought the people asking the questions wanted to hear. This has long been the main argument against accepting these statements at face value or giving them too much credence. In addition, there is a whole genre of literature often referred to as the "plantation tradition" which nostalgically idealized life on the plantation. These stories began during the antebellum period, and continued after Reconstruction. There were several writers in this genre during this period, but Thomas Page was perhaps the most famous purveyor of these stories, of happy and complacent slaves whose main pleasures were stealing chickens, eating water melon and singing and dancing on master's porch. These were designed to serve an ideological purpose. All of these fictional Southern constructions of plantation life portray devoted, happy slaves who really didn't have it that bad. They were never beaten, they were benignly cared for, loved and laughed at for their ignorance and simplistic ways. These derogatory personifications of Black people and slaves as fools or worse in these stories are directly connected to characterizations of black people in minstrelsy, which was originally a white working class entertainment practiced in bars and saloons--a case of those in bad conditions laughing at those in worse conditions. It was these still prevalent negative characterizations (among others) that Spike Lee both lampooned and condemned in his 2000 film "Bamboozled."

Another source for this idea of the "usefulness" of slavery comes from none other than Booker T. Washington. In his autobiography, "Up From Slavery" (1901) Washington refers to slavery as "the institution which the Nation unhappily had engrafted upon it at the time." This passive construction and apologetics is followed by a rendition of his own life under slavery on a plantation that is mediated by his young age: he speaks of hearing of the horrors of the middle passage and of the mistreatment and floggings given some slaves but not any where he lived. After articulating his own fears and experiences under slavery, he makes this statement: "[W]hen we rid ourselves of prejudice, or racial feeling, and look facts in the face, we must acknowledge that, notwithstanding the cruelty and moral wrong of slavery, the ten million Negroes inhabiting this country, who themselves or whose ancestors went through the school of American slavery, are in a stronger and more hopeful condition, materially, intellectually, morally, and religiously, than is true of an equal number of black people in any other portion of the globe" (Penguin edition, 16). If this is not the first such statement from a former slave--there are probably others in some slave narratives, I haven't read them all--it is at least the most infamous because of Washington's relative celebrity.

It is important to consider this statement within its context and to remember several things about Mr. Washington. First, he later in this same text reprints his equally controversial statement from the Atlanta Exposition of 1985, in which he assures his mostly white audience that there are more important things than the vote, integration or social equality: "In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress" (221-222). This statement (like his earlier statements about slavery) is meant to calm those who were hearing a radically different message at this time from W.E.B. DuBois.

Historians and others have long had many questions about these statements by Washington. I have two ideas (probably not original) on this controversy. The first is ideological: Washington is writing this at the same time that the literature of the "plantation tradition" is at or near its most popular moment in the South and the North. Second, his autobiography and the incidents that it recounts are at least partially motivated by self-interest: the most important consideration for Washington at this time was securing financing for his Tuskegee Institute, which meant keeping his patrons in the North and the South happy. One way for Washington to do that was to absolve them of any guilt for slavery, while agreeing to live within the cultural and legal proscriptions of the period. "Up From Slavery" accomplishes both tasks. Does this evidence mean that some slaves found slavery "useful" were devoted to their masters and sat around on the "big house's" porch laughing and singing? It could, some authors have argues that not all slaves were abused constantly. And by some accounts they did get Sundays, Christmas, and July 4th off. But were those the exception or the rule? I believe they were the exception! Too many slaves risked life and limb to escape the "peculiar institution" or revolt against it, to make me believe that it was in most cases considered benign, let alone useful. It was after all still slavery, but even Frederick Douglass used a trade he learned under slavery in the North after he escaped. One could also say in a moment of cynical reflection that Douglass found his beatings useful too, in that the scars from them helped provide proof to skeptical crowds of his previous condition. So it all depends on how one defines "useful." And how far one is prepared to take that definition.
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