Magazine article Monthly Review

Echoing the Past, Sounding the Present. (Book Review)

Magazine article Monthly Review

Echoing the Past, Sounding the Present. (Book Review)

Article excerpt

Sally E. Hadden, Slave Patois: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas (Harvard University Press, 2001), 340 pages, cloth $35.

I, [patroller's name], do swear, that I will as searcher for guns, swords, and other weapons among the slaves in my district, faithfully, and as privately as I can, discharge the trust reposed in me as the law directs, to the best of my power. So help me, God.

The historical record of slave patrols, stretching from the mid-sixteenth century to the post-Reconstruction night terrors of the Ku Klux Klan, is wide and deep and, until now, largely unrecounted. Sally E. Hadden's Slave Patrols, the first detailed treatment of American slave patrols, exposes yet another ugly facet of American racial oppression.

It traces the evolution of slave patrols, within a conscious, systematic tradition of brutal social control, as the first line of community-organized oppression of African slaves and as one of the principal social institutions which constituted American racial oppression from the colonial period to Reconstruction. In six chapters, Hadden examines the colonial experiments which were the background of fully-developed slave patrols; the mode of patrol supervision in both urban and rural areas; the changing social identity of the patrollers themselves; how patrols functioned in both everyday and crisis situations; and the terrorist social forces--principally the KKK--which, in the postbellum period, inherited and modified the patrol's work.

Slave patrols existed wherever there were slave economies, especially in the colonial and antebellum South. "Only a very few counties," Hadden writes, "never had any type of functional patrol prior to the Civil War" (p. 69). And, while there was some variation in the social structure of patrols, the point of establishing them was constant: to maintain white supremacy and privilege. "Patrollers' night-to-night enforcement of slave control laws," Hadden says, "undergirded the entire structure of slavery," which, in a slave economy, meant undergirding the entire structure of society per se (p. 72).

In the colonial period, white settlers, especially in coastal areas, feared both widespread slave insurrection--perhaps the first mass, apocalyptic terror of American culture--and invasion or attack by competing colonial powers. The militia system could not respond to both threats simultaneously. Slave patrols were developed as a kind of supplementary force. African slaves were thus the first in a series of social groups suspected of "fifth columnist" activity--the first moment in a long American tradition of paranoia and demonization, one that's active today in the detainment of hundreds if not thousands of persons, held without trial, since the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Of course white settlers had reasons to fear insurrection, reasons which were embedded in a context of systematic injustice. Slaves were justified in trying to overturn oppression, despite white claims about Africans being a race of natural slaves. And, as Hadden notes, three insurrections demonstrated the resolve and determination of slaves: the Stono Rebellion (1739), and the insurrections of Denmark Vesey (1822), and Nat Turner (1831).

Slaves planned insurrection not only in secret. At meetings and gatherings, which patrols were expected to break up, their freed fellows pleaded for it publicly. One of the most notable public pleadings was David Walker's Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829), a jeremiad of such vehement, ferocious righteousness that William Lloyd Garrison, a staunch white abolitionist who consistently eschewed moderate rhetoric, could not support it without reservations. In his Appeal, Walker wrote:

The whites want slaves, and want us for their slaves, but some of them will curse the day they ever saw us. As true as the sun ever shone in its meridian splendor, my colour will root some of them out of the very face of the earth. …

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