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Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made Paperback – Unabridged, January 12, 1976
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"Without modern peer as an historical narrative, as a sensitive functional analysis of a major region and period of American society in general, and the Afro-American community in particular." --The New Republic
"Altogether a first-class historical work, enhanced by a good, forthright style" --The New Yorker
"Genovese has done more than any other American historian to life this tortured subject out of its culture-bound parochialism." --C. Vann Woodward, The New York Review of Books
From the Inside Flap
- Publisher : Vintage (January 12, 1976)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 864 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0394716523
- ISBN-13 : 978-0394716527
- Item Weight : 1.38 pounds
- Dimensions : 5.3 x 1.5 x 8 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #461,607 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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Genovese argues that there are a number of core notions to the American version of slavery. First, it was a paternalist institution, implying reciprocity. In exchange for working, so the thinking goes, the slaveholders would take care of their slaves in a fatherly fashion, because at any rate slaves were essentially incapable of adult responsibility; they offered them a home, food, and retirement "benefits" when no longer capable of working. Not only does Genovese challenge the self-serving hypocrisy behind this (it was designed to discipline slaves while justifying brutality), but he goes into great detail about the underhanded leverage it offered to the slaves to preserve their dignity and integrity to the greatest possible degree. Slaveholder myopia, he concludes, was revealed in the shock and feelings of betrayal that they expressed when emancipated slaves left them - they deluded themselves, as many continue to do to this day; in their eyes, the slaves were inexplicably "ungrateful" for all that was given them.
Second, he describes the legal paradox of slavery. On the one hand, slaves were property, supposedly they existed as an extension of the will of the slaveholder. This made them objects, arbitrarily punishable with the greatest cruelty. On the other hand, slaves were recognized as having free will, necessitating legal responsibility for their actions but also an acknowledgement that they needed to be managed properly in order to get the best work out of them. The way that this paradox was solved, according to Genovese, was a reliance on local custom rather than a pan-regional legal regime, including legal protections and in some cases the right to self defense against white overseers; in this scheme, "bad" slaveholders were ostracized by their peers, though what kind of an impact this might have had is beyond me.
Third, the slaves developed their own versions of Christianity, which served both resistance to the institution and accommodation. To paraphrase Genovese, Christianity promoted acceptance of what had to be endured while resisting despair and dehumanization with visions of salvation and justice. Unlike slaveholders who asked forgiveness, it was an instrument for slaves to demand recognition and the right to some spiritual autonomy. The black preacher could become idealist, politician, intriguer, moral authority, learned - in other words, power players. Of course, Christian services were also occasions for communal celebration and mutual aid.
Fourth, plantation work (which occupied about 1/3 of the entire slave population) existed somewhere between traditional peasant labor and that of an industrialized proletariat. It operated in accordance with the rhythms of the harvest, but also required a much higher level of organization. Within the paternalist system, discipline was brutally imposed from above, which, Genovese argues, did not prepare slaves for the post-war transition to a wage-based capitalist economy that offered them no paternalistic care, particularly when they could no longer work.
Fifth, Genovese goes on at great length about the strengths of the slave family, which he argued became weaker with emancipation rather than representing a trait somehow inherent in blacks. He argues, quite convincingly, that more research must be done in this area. In part, he was reacting to the assumptions of the Moynihan report, which, he believed, projected current problems uncritically into the past.
These are very interesting concepts that added greatly to my understanding. However, the age of the book is revealed by the references that Genovese makes: there is Marx, of course, but also Gramsci and even Hegel, in addition to many academics then current, such as EP Thompson. However influential it was at the time, the obscurity of the Moynihan reference also reflects the outdatedness of the book. Perhaps someone has updated the content of the book, but I still think it sets a standard in the field. (If anyone has suggestions on contemporary books, please add them in comments.)
Furthermore, this is not a comprehensive narrative, but set in the time when slavery as an institution was more or less established. While there is some evolution, its approach is largely static. Instead, the book is organized around themes, the unity of which can be very difficult to discern in Genovese's occasionally abstruse and indirect style. You have to read the book slowly. It is about high undergraduate level.
Overall, this is a great and dense read. I warmly recommend it to anyone willing to make the effort.
Though comprehensive, at times "Roll, Jordan, Roll" seems to minimize the horrors of slavery by under-representing many of the powerful slave narratives and by over-representing quotations from slave owners. Genovese is best in his discussion of the religion of slaves. The use of more firsthand accounts from the enslaved Christians themselves would have been helpful to readers.
Over three decades old now, there are many books available which provide a complete presentation of both sides in the slavery experience. First, readers would benefit greatly from primary source books on the topic. Just a few of these first-hand examples written by those who had been there, include: Octavia Albert, "The House of Bondage or Charlotte Brooks and Other Slaves," William Andrews, "North Carolina Slave Narratives: The Lives of Moses Roper, Lunsford Lane, Moses Grandy, and Thomas H. Jones," Henry Bibb, "Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb: An American Slave," John Blassingame, "Slave Testimony," Arna Bontemps, "Five Black Lives: The Autobiographies of Venture Smith, James Mars, William Grimes, The Rev. G. W. Offley, and James Smith," Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, "Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery," Olaudah Equiano, "The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or, Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself," Alexander Falconbridge, "An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa," Thomas Higginson, "Army Life in a Black Regiment and Other Writings," Harriet Jacobs, "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," Elizabeth Keckley, "Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House," James Mellon, "Bullwhip Days: The Slaves Remember, An Oral History," Gilbert Osofsky, "Puttin' On Ole Massa: The Slave Narratives of Henry Bibb, William Wells Brown, and Solomon Northup," Daniel Payne, "Recollections of Seventy Years," Charles Perdue, "Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves," Peter Randolph, "From Slave Cabin to Pulpit," George Rawick, "The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography (19 Volumes)."
Secondary sources that extend the scope of presentation include: Anne Bailey, "African Voices of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Beyond the Silence and the Shame," Ira Berlin, "Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America," Dwight Hopkins, "Down, Up, and Over: Slave Religion and Black Theology," Walter Johnson, "Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market," Anne Pinn, "Fortress Introduction to Black Church History," Albert Raboteau, Albert, "Canaan Land: A Religious History of African Americans," Hugh Thomas, "The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-1870."
Among the primary sources listed, the ones by Falconbridge and Higginson provide eye-witness accounts of the horrors of enslavement and the African American attitude toward those horrors by white authors who were there. The other primary sources listed provide first-hand accounts of African Americans who lived through the abuses of slavery.
Readers wanting immediate access to the views of those who experienced slavery in all its dehumanization, can visit the Library of Congress web site to read interviews of ex-enslaved men and women dictated in the 1930s. Supplementing these with the slave narratives mentioned above will provide the lay reader and aspiring expert/scholar with the research tools necessary to understand the world of enslavement.
Reviewer: Robert W. Kellemen, Ph.D. is the author of "Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction," "Soul Physicians," and "Spiritual Friends."
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The book has some serious flaws: three serious ones are its belief in the paternalism of American slave-holders, an almost complete lack of conclusions and its length. It is at its best when describing what its sub-title calls "The World the Slaves Made", but it could have done this far more concisely, and its failure to locate that world in context reduces its value. The book reads more like an extended essay about Genovese's interpretation than an objective study.
Genovese sees the pre-Civil War South as a paternalistic society whose paternalism was a European ideology adopted by the slave-holders and accepted by the slaves as it gave them a protector from harsh slave laws. However, acceptance (he argues) deprived the slaves of the initiative to change their lives through revolt, as in Brazil. He regards paternalism as a pre-capitalist, pre-industrial style of life and work, the opposite of the factory system. Other writers like Kenneth Stampp and Fogel and Engerman consider slave-holders were capitalists motivated by profit and the lifestyle they aspired to was merely incidental to this.
Genovese's 650-plus pages contain much detail from the records of slave-holders and others, but it is unclear how representative this is. His conclusions are limited to three pages, which largely restate his view of a paternalistic accommodation between master and slave without considering the alternatives. He calls paternalism an ideology or ethos but fails to analyse its elements or development. It is difficult to consider the actions of slave-holders in the South as "paternalistic" as that word is normally understood, but Genovese does not provide an explanation of how the system with its brutality could be paternalistic in any other terms.
This book deserves to be read as one reinterpretation of the history of American slavery, but it should not be read in isolation from the work of Kenneth Stampp and others, who show slavery as irredeemably rooted in violence and coercion.