Race Relations at the Margins: Slaves and Poor Whites in the Antebellum Southern Countryside.
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 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 slaves. Forret expands on this definition in two ways, each contingent on 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, 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 collusion, the planter 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 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 "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 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 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: 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" of wealthy whites but only makes a few casual, imprecise references to the paternalism 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.
Iowa State University
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2009|
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