Review: New Studies in the History of American Slavery
Edward E. Baptist and Stephanie M. H. Camp, eds. New Studies in the History of American Slavery. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006. 308 pp. ISBN 0820326941.
In his 1990 work, African Americans in the Colonial Era, Donald R. Wright called for scholars to look beyond southern plantation life and begin to investigate the history of slavery in other times and places. Since then, an increasing number of scholars have taken up this challenge. Edward E. Baptist and Stephanie M. H. Camp’s New Studies in the History of American Slavery is an important addition to this growing body of literature, as even the sections that focus on slavery in the plantation South do so in innovative ways.
Baptist and Camp divided this book into three sections, each addressing topics that have often been overlooked or oversimplified in histories of slavery in America. In section one, “Gender and Slavery,” Jennifer L. Morgan, Sharla M. Fett, and Camp each contribute a chapter that focuses on African women and their bodies. Morgan explains how European descriptions of African women’s bodies contributed to the development of racialized slavery, while Fett argues that African American midwives in the antebellum South crossed lines of race and class and therefore maintained a liminal position in southern culture. In Camp’s chapter, she emphasizes how enslaved women and men resisted white authority by celebrating and enjoying their bodies during illicit parties. All told, these chapters highlight the lives of African women to provide new and diverse perspectives on the development of the slave system and the experience of southern slaves.
This focus on diversity of experience continues in the second section, “Race, Identity, and Community.” By investigating how slaves saw themselves and each other, these chapters show that enslaved men and women did not simply develop broad, racialized, African identities, but often understood themselves in complex ethnic terms. Herman L. Bennett begins this section by looking outside the southern United States in his chapter “Genealogies to a Past.” In it, he draws on marriage records to argue that African slaves in seventeenth-century Mexico often maintained ethnic distinctions based on their place of origin long after their forced relocation. Barbara Krauthamer also moves beyond a strictly black/white perspective to show how escaped slave women were often integrated into Creek society. Dylan C. Penningroth describes how property ownership complicated not just interactions between blacks and whites, but also relationships among enslaved people. Each of these chapters forces us to recognize, as Penningroth wrote, that “black people’s lives involved far more than their relations with whites”(173).
The book is divided into an introduction, five thematic chapters, and an epilogue. After an overview of evangelical identity and worship patterns in the antebellum South, each subsequent chapter covers a significant stage in an evangelical woman’s life, including romantic courtship, evangelical marriages, childbirth and child rearing, and the death of family members. Stephan’s strategy is “to place individual women in the relationships that mattered most to them,” including their relationships with God, parents, siblings, in-laws, spouses, children, and, in some cases, slaves (10). He demonstrates that each relationship offered unique opportunities and limitations for women to experience their faith and exercise spiritual authority.
In part three of this work, “The Politics of Culture in Slavery,” Vincent Brown, Phillip Troutman, Edward E. Baptist, and Christopher L. Brown authored chapters that focus on issues of political and cultural authority and power. Vincent Brown describes different ways in which slaves and slave owners in Jamaica understood death and how they attempted to use these understandings in order to gain social authority and control. The next two chapters look at language in order to better understand salves’ experiences. Troutman investigates how enslaved men and women used sentimental language in letters to express the deep sense of loss that accompanied forced separations and in order to guarantee that whites would pass their messages along to the intended recipient. Baptist also considers language by looking at WPA interviews and describing how former slaves chose to tell their stories. He shows some of the ways in which these histories were scripted in order to emphasize the most salient aspects of slaves’ experiences. In the final chapter, Christopher L. Brown takes a trans-Atlantic perspective, looking how British politics influenced the development of slavery in the empire.
In each chapter, the authors make convincing claims without overstating or oversimplifying their arguments. A strength of this work is that the contributors recognize that there are unavoidable problems that scholars must face when studying slavery. They admit that sources are limited and can be unreliable, which makes interpreting evidence all the more difficult. Still, the contributors do not use this as an excuse. Instead, they take the time to provide an explanation for why they chose to utilize certain sources and how they tried to avoid interpretative problems. In so doing, they not only strengthen their own arguments, but also encourage others to investigate new sources and reevaluate the usefulness of problematic ones.
Although this volume provides a number of important insights into the history of American slavery, quite a few chapters focus on areas outside of the southern states. This may inspire southern historians to look beyond this region to see how it was connected to other parts of the Atlantic world. But those interested in a strictly regional study of the South will find the chapters by Fett, Camp, Krauthamer, and Penningroth more directly relevant to their work. Similarly, this volume may provide scholars of religion with new avenues of study. However, it includes almost no direct discussion of religion and, therefore, will be of limited interest to those looking for a book that focuses on religion and slavery.