Race in the American South: From Slavery to Civil Rights

By David Brown; Clive Webb | Go to book overview

Chapter 5

THE PARADOXICAL INSTITUTION:
ANTEBELLUM SLAVERY

Peter J. Parish describes southern slavery as 'the paradoxical institution' because 'its guiding principle was that slaves were property, but its everyday practice demonstrated the impossibility of living up to, or down to, that denial of the slave's humanity'.1 African Americans did their very best to assert their agency in the face of overwhelming odds as the plantation system once again tightened its grip in the nineteenth century. Slaves sought to take advantage of the owner's reliance on their labour as far as they could. Some historians describe a paternalistic system of accommodation and resistance developing in the antebellum period; others see a distinctive variant of modern capitalism based on rewards and harsh punishments.

Slavery in the Old South was also paradoxical because of its exceptional diversity, as bondspeople laboured in a wide variety of settings. Like nonslaveholding whites, the lifestyles of the enslaved were heavily shaped by geographical and economic circumstances: the type of work and the size of plantation, as well as by regional variations such as those between the Upper and Lower South, and between plantation district and upcountry. At any one time, approximately three-quarters of slaves worked in the fields, but they were also blacksmiths, carpenters, carriage drivers, factory workers, boat hands, musicians, nurses, cooks, seamstresses and house servants. Moreover, the experience of field slaves was hardly monolithic. Cultivating the great staples of cotton, sugar, tobacco and rice demanded different types of skills, and planters grew other crops such as wheat and corn. Planters continually experimented with different work regimes in the hope of improving their harvest. They could do nothing about the vagaries of the weather or the changing of the seasons, however, and slaves carried out different tasks at different times of the year. Most plantations were hives of activity, providing for the many needs of the community, from basic food supplies to clothing and housing.

The antebellum white mind, however, generally failed to recognise African American diversity as blackness was synonymous with a servile

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