Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Low-Country

By Penningroth, Dylan | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Low-Country


Penningroth, Dylan, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry. By PHILip D. MORGAN. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1998. xxiv, 703 pp. $49.95 cloth; $21.95 paper.

IN 1776, nearly three-quarters of all black people in North America lived in the Chesapeake region of Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware and the Low Country region of coastal South Carolina and Georgia. Using a vast array of primary and secondary sources, and drawing on literature from a variety of disciplines and fields, Slave Counterpoint sketches the development of a vibrant culture among people of African descent enslaved in British North America between approximately 1670 and 1800.

The book is organized around a comparison between these two centers of black life in North America, the Chesapeake and the Low Country. This comparison, which forms the "counterpoint" of the title, allows Philip D. Morgan to draw out new insights while giving clarity to his detailed and complicated analysis. Within this comparative framework, the book is divided into three parts. Part I argues that different ecologies, geographies, and staple crops in the two regions molded two different experiences of slavery and helped shape the rise of two regional cultures among enslaved black people (pp. xvii, 23). In the Low Country, growing rice and indigo demanded dangerous, intense work but also contained slack periods, which eventually formed the basis for an extensive "informal economy" within a highly concentrated black population. Chesapeake slaves generally had better food, housing, and health than Low Country slaves but also were dispersed among whites and had less control over their domestic lives and less involvement in informal economies (pp. 144-45, 158-59). In other words, Morgan argues, the "material conditions" of slaves' lives and their chance for "communal autonomy" were, in broad terms, inversely related (pp. 101, 665).

Part 2 focuses on interactions between blacks and whites. Building on Eugene D. Genovese's thesis about paternalism, Morgan argues that slavery locked whites and blacks together in ways that touched nearly every corner of their lives. (See Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made [New York, 1974].) But Morgan deepens our understanding of whiteblack interactions by exploring change over time, by emphasizing the immense complexity of those interactions, by devoting considerable attention to interactions between slaves and the many "plain" white folk who did not own slaves, and by exploring the informal economy of trading between slaves and whites, a subject that Morgan, in his previous work, was the first to analyze in depth. …

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