Slave against Slave: Plantation Violence in the Old South.
The author of this study examines so-called "slave-slave" violence in the antebellum South. In doing so he enters the complex intersection of widely circulated media reports of modern-day intraracial homicide and historians' near-universal belief that harmonious slave communities dotted the Old South's plantation landscape.
Jeff Forret's study of the historical and theoretical literature, as well as his detailed analysis of intraracial slave homicides in antebellum Virginia and elsewhere, leads him to identify "no consistent pattern of elevated rates of violence among black Americans over time" and to dismiss "any suggestion that contemporary 'black-on-black violence' may be explained as the residual aftereffect of slavery" (394). Forret's splendid study also contributes significantly to historians' understanding of slave life and the violence that constituted "an organic part of southern society" (26). He notes correctly that "[sjlaves faced a much greater danger of physical assault or death at the hands of whites than from their fellow inhabitants of the quarters" (49).
Historians confront an interpretive challenge when assessing black violence within the slave community. Revisionist scholars of the 1970s identified slaves not as passive objects of white oppression, but rather as active agents of their own lives and guardians of their own humanity. Historians, emphasizing the importance of the slaves' familial, religious, and social lives in promoting group solidarity and resilience, have created what Forret terms "the powerful 'slave community' paradigm," one that downplays disagreements and fissures in the slave quarters (5). To revise the revisionists, Forret draws effectively on ex-slave autobiographies as well as church and court records, among other sources, to identify hundreds of cases of overt violence, including intraracial quarrels, physical confrontations, and homicides, that erupted between slaves, both male and female.
Forret identifies conflicts and jealousies, divisions and disputes, and mistrusts and rivalries that contributed to episodes of physical violence within slave communities. Redirecting conventional understandings of "agency," in his narrative the bondspeople "betray, fight with, murder, and cheat on one another, and they express agency with knives, fists, and fence rails" (8). Based on his close sampling of sources in the Virginia Piedmont, the South Carolina upcountry, middle Georgia, the Old Southwest cotton frontier, and several urban settings, Forret unearths evidence pointing to slave-slave violence resulting from conflicts within the slave economy, in the creation and defense of enslaved families, and in the negotiating and renegotiating of the masculinity of enslaved men and the femininity of bondwomen. Both genders fought to preserve their honor--"to maintain their good word and reputation" (382). He explains: "Violence afforded slaves an avenue through which to uphold cultural expectations, police themselves internally without interference from whites, and impose a moral and ethical code of their own creation" (25).
By examining interpersonal, intraracial slave violence, Forret demystifies and deromanticizes slave communities, reminding readers of slavery's inherent ambiguity. Resembling all humans across time and space, slaves disputed, fought, and sometimes killed. Forret thus provides an invaluable corrective to the historiography of slave culture that defines slave behavior as homogeneous. His book will surely influence future slave community studies.
John David Smith
University of North Carolina at Charlotte
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|Author:||Smith, John David|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2017|
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