Friday, March 14, 2008

Black Majority

Oh my! It's been days and days since I blogged about a book. Fear not: the required reading marches on.

This week, I am reading Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion by Peter H. Wood (1974).

Excerpt, page 123:
Similarly, the alligator, a freshwater reptile which horrified Europeans (since it was unfamiliar and could not be killed with a gun), was readily handled by Negroes used to protecting their stock from African crocodiles. These same slaves were inevitably knowledgeable about the kind of marsh and cyprus swamp which their masters found so mysterious. From the start they tended, along with local Indians, to dominate the fishing of the region, for Englishmen, while capable of hauling nets at sea from an ocean-going vessel, were not at home in a dugout canoe.

I thought that this was actually a fairly impressive book, given that it was written before 1974. Wood argues for the intelligence, agency, and rationality of slaves in South Carolina. He also pays a surprising amount of attention to meaning making (ex: Did black slaves die from malaria less often than whites? Maybe slightly less often, due to inherited sickle cell resistance. But the fact that whites thought that blacks died less often is more important than the reality.).

Wood is clearly a student of Oscar Handlin - he posits a fifty-year period of flux and possibility before South Carolina's plantation system kicked in with full force. He describes a process of creative cultural achievement that makes black slaves actors and innovators rather than passive objects traumatized by the middle passage.

Like any book, this one has a few problems. I think Wood's use of the term "pioneers" to describe the first generations of black slaves in South Carolina is problematic because it obscures the coercion that went into bringing Africans to America and then forcing them to work. Wood's lack of attention to gender, religion, economics, etc. are also flaws. But, again, these are not fatal flaws given that his analysis was pretty groundbreaking for its time.

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