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Race Relations at the Margins: Slaves and Poor Whites in the Antebellum Southern Countryside.

Race Relations race relations
Noun, pl

the relations between members of two or more races within a single community

race relations nplrelaciones fpl raciales

 at the Margins: Slaves and Poor Whites in the Antebellum Southern Countryside. By Jeff Forret (Baton Rouge Baton Rouge (băt`ən rzh) [Fr.,=red stick], city (1990 pop. 219,531), state capital and seat of East Baton Rouge parish, SE La. : Louisiana State University Press This article needs sources or references that appear in reliable, third-party publications. Alone, primary sources and sources affiliated with the subject of this article are not sufficient for an accurate encyclopedia article. , 2006. ix plus 269 pp.).

The poor whites of the antebellum South, Jeff Forret maintains, have suffered from scholarly neglect and contemporary prejudice. In order for scholars to understand issues of race and class in the Old South, stereotypes must be cast aside in favor of more nuanced analysis. In Race Relations on the Margins, Forret takes up this task, exploring slave and poor white relationships in the rural South. This carefully-researched study is a useful addition to a growing literature on nonelite southerners in plantation societies.

Two challenges faced Forret as he began this study. The groups he seeks to understand were largely illiterate, thus limiting his sources. He addresses this problem through the creative use of a wide variety of evidence--court records, WPA WPA: see Work Projects Administration.
 in full Works Progress Administration later (1939–43) Work Projects Administration

U.S. work program for the unemployed.
 interviews, newspapers, slave narratives, manuscripts, among others--from the Carolinas, Virginia, and Georgia. His second problem was one of definition. What constituted a poor white southerner? Charles Bolton defined these men and women in purely economic terms--whites who possessed neither land nor chattel chattel (chăt`əl), in law, any property other than a freehold estate in land (see tenure). A chattel is treated as personal property rather than real property regardless of whether it is movable or immovable (see property).  slaves. Forret expands on this definition in two ways, each contingent on Adj. 1. contingent on - determined by conditions or circumstances that follow; "arms sales contingent on the approval of congress"
contingent upon, dependant on, dependant upon, dependent on, dependent upon, depending on, contingent
 the other. First, he allows for some property ownership, perhaps a grogshop or "a few paltry acres." (10) This categorization relies on more than economics, however. Crucial to Forret's definition are the very stereotypes he seeks to overturn. "Authentic, antebellum southern usage" involved moral judgment of character and industry (11). His analysis of poor whites then requires not just a consideration of economy but of popular perception as well.

Forret emphasizes the "complex" nature of slave-poor white relations. He has done yeoman's work here, identifying and categorizing the many types of experiences and relationships slaves and poor whites shared. He details the animosity between the two groups and provides ample examples of its violent manifestation. Forret seeks to make his mark, however, by dismantling the "stubborn myth" that mutual disregard constituted the totality of their interactions. Materially deprived and subject to the dictates of the wealthy planters Planters is an American snack food company under Kraft Foods manufacturing, best known for its nuts and the Mr. Peanut icon that symbolizes them.

Started by Italian immigrants Amedeo Obici and Mario Peruzzi in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1906, it was incorporated in 1908
, slaves and poor whites found some cause for camaraderie and friendship. They often worked in the same fields and factories, drank in the same grog shops, and eyed each other suspiciously over games of chance.

They traded together, too--though the camaraderie that might have characterized the grog shop found little place in market transactions. Both slaves and poor whites had much to gain through illicit trade. The enslaved bought items limited by their masters--usually clothing and liquor--while whites most often sought to obtain foodstuffs--often stolen--at a reduced price. The risks attending these transactions frayed potential ties of friendship and solidarity, however. Fearing both profit loss and interracial in·ter·ra·cial  
Relating to, involving, or representing different races: interracial fellowship; an interracial neighborhood.
 collusion, the planter planter, farm or garden implement that places propagating material such as seeds or seedlings into the ground, usually in rows. Broadcasting, i.e., scattering seed in all directions, by hand followed by harrowing (see harrow) to cover the seed with soil was an early  class levied stern punishments against slaves and poor whites who engaged in such activity thereby making buyers and sellers potential rats and tattlers. Forret concludes that these anxious ttansactions "channeled lower-class discontent with in the established social framework, and never seriously threatened to undermine the southern social order" (114).

The contradictory tensions Forret describes could explode at any moment, causing enslaved and poor white men to "careen erratically between friendship and violence" (183). Due to their ambiguous position in southern society, poor white men's relationships with slaves' were highly unstable and unpredictable. Forret explores what he calls a "masculine subculture subculture /sub·cul·ture/ (sub´kul-chur) a culture of bacteria derived from another culture.

 of violence," categorizing the types of turbulent interactions in which these men engaged. Sexual relationships were less stable still. A "double standard" marked interracial sexual relationships between poor whites and slaves. Echoing work by Victoria Bynum, Martha Hodes, and others, Forret describes a society that grudgingly grudg·ing  
Reluctant; unwilling.

grudging·ly adv.

Adv. 1.
 "permitted sexual contact between white men and slave women, but not between white women and slave men" (184).

Planters were well aware of poor whites' crucial yet contradictory role in southern society. As patrollers, overseers, and slave hunters, poor whites supposedly served as an extension of the will of the master class. Abuse of this power was rampant and cause for much resentment by their enslaved victims. Bonds of affection and desire for personal profit could threaten masters' designs, however. Forret provides examples of poor whites assisting fugitives, forging passes, stealing slaves, and on rare occasions participating in overt rebellion. Such behavior was troubling to slaveholders but, as Forret argues, did not "require and self-conscious ideological commitment to or against the southern social structure" (156).

Forret concludes with the following question: "why did slaves and poor whites (and free blacks) not form a coalition of the downtrodden down·trod·den  
Oppressed; tyrannized.


oppressed and lacking the will to resist

Adj. 1.
 and dispossessed and bring slaveholder fears of a southern, lower-class alliance to fruition?" (225) His answer sums up the work of Race Relations at the Margins. In addition to reasons of white geographic mobility and herrenvolk democracy outlined by Charles Bolton, the "competing and contradictory" nature of the relationship between whites and poor whites militated against any sort of underclass solidarity. These relationships were "ambivalent," "ambiguous," and "unpredictable" and thus prevented a "clear ideological commitment to each other's plight as a class" (226).

However intellectually unsatisfying these adjectives might seem, Forret should be commended for his courage in using them. Throughout the book, he weighs his sources, careful not to overreach overreach

the error in a fast gait when the toe of a hindhoof of a horse strikes and injures the back of the pastern of the leg on the same side.

overreach boot
 his evidence. He demonstrates, beyond doubt, that the relationships between poor whites and slaves were motivated by both animosity and camaraderie, by mutual concern and personal interest. This argument is not strikingly new. As Forret acknowledges, work by earlier scholars outlines some of these same contradictory relationships. The book's wealth of detail and geographic scope, however, make Forret's book an important contribution to the field and a fine complement to Timothy Lockley's more urban-focused Lines in the Sand Lines in the Sand may refer to:
  • Lines in the Sand (novel), a novel by Rhiannon Lassiter
  • Lines in the Sand (House episode), an episode of the television series House
  • Lines in the Sand
: Race and Class in Lowcountry Georgia.

For all of the specifics, however, Forret sometimes avoids exploring the larger implications of his research. Most glaringly, he discusses briefly the "noblesse oblige noblesse o·blige  
Benevolent, honorable behavior considered to be the responsibility of persons of high birth or rank.

[French, nobility is an obligation : noblesse, nobility +
" of wealthy whites but only makes a few casual, imprecise references to the paternalism paternalism (p·terˑ·n  of the master class (71). Readers would have benefited immensely had Forret rooted his many examples in a more thorough discussion of power, hegemony, and the social order.

Race Relations at the Margins, then, marks neither the beginning nor the end of debate on this understudied topic. Forret has produced an analysis impressive for not only its depth of research but also for the questions it will continue to provoke about race and class in the Old South.

Kathleen Hilliard

Iowa State University Academics
ISU is best known for its degree programs in science, engineering, and agriculture. ISU is also home of the world's first electronic digital computing device, the Atanasoff–Berry Computer.
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Author:Hilliard, Kathleen
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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