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Posts Tagged ‘Ira Berlin’

The Place of Miscegenation Laws within Historical Scholarship about Slavery

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Communication, Economics, History, Law, Laws of Slavery, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Slavery, The Literary Table, Thomas Jefferson, Western Civilization on May 17, 2011 at 8:28 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following post appeared at The Literary Table.

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Miscegenation laws, also known as anti-miscegenation laws, increasingly have attracted the attention of scholars of slavery over the last half-century.  Scholarship on slavery first achieved eminence with the publication of such texts as Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery (1944), Frank Tannenbaum’s Slave and Citizen (1946), Kenneth Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution (1956), Stanley Elkins’s Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (1959), and Leon F. Litwack’s North of Slavery (1961).  When Winthrop D. Jordan published his landmark study White Over Black in 1968, miscegenation statutes during the era of American slavery were just beginning to fall within historians’ critical purview.  The Loving v. Virginia case, initiated in 1959 and resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967, no doubt played an important role in activating scholarship on this issue, especially in light of the Civil Rights movement that called attention to various areas of understudied black history. 

In Loving, the Supreme Court struck down Virginia’s miscegenation statutes forbidding marriage between whites and non-whites and ruled that the racial classifications of the statutes restricted the freedom to marry and therefore violated the Equal Protection Clause and Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  In the wake of Loving, scholarship on miscegenation laws gained traction, although miscegenation laws during the era of American slavery have yet to receive extensive critical treatment.  Several articles and essays have considered miscegenation laws and interracial sex during the era of American slavery, but only a few book-length analyses are devoted to these issues, and of these analyses, most deal with interracial sex and miscegenation laws in the nineteenth-century antebellum period, or from the period of Reconstruction up through the twentieth-century.  This historiographical essay explores interracial sex and miscegenation laws in the corpus of historical writing about slavery.  It does so by contextualizing interracial sex and miscegenation laws within broader trends in the study of slavery.  Placing various historical texts in conversation with one another, this essay speculates about how and why, over time, historians treated interracial sex and miscegenation laws differently and with varying degrees of detail.  By no means exhaustive, this essay merely seeks to point out one area of slavery studies that stands for notice, interrogation, and reconsideration.  The colonies did not always have miscegenation laws; indeed, miscegenation laws did not spring up in America until the late seventeenth-century, and they remained in effect in various times and regions until just forty-four years ago.  The longevity and severity of these laws make them worthy our continued attention, for to understand miscegenation laws is to understand more fully the logic and formal expression of racism. Read the rest of this entry »

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Outline and Summary of Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Dred Scott, History, Slavery on February 9, 2011 at 2:45 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998).

Prologue: 

Race is a historical construction.  It is continually redefined by various parties and for various reasons.  The experiences that defined race in North America were volatile; they changed over the course of two centuries.  The definition of race—and of slave—transformed alongside and because of human interaction.  Slaves defined their history as much as masters did.  Slavery was a “negotiated relationship.”  Even though masters maintained a position of dominance over slaves, slave agency constantly forced masters to revise their relationship to slaves.  Masters and slaves had to concede power to one another.  As the master-slave relationship changed, so did the dynamics of the slave system.  The master-slave relationship was always renegotiated and remade, and the power of the master or the slave was always contingent.  Therefore, the reality of a slave’s life was different depending upon time and place.  No slave experience was the same.  Rather than examining the commonalities and continuities of slavery across time and space, this work seeks to emphasize differences and contingencies.  Discussions of paternalism in the master-slave relationship have dominated slave studies and reinforced the idea that slave conditions were static and fixed in time.  As a result, historians have established misleading tropes.  The author seeks to challenge and undo some of those tropes.  He seeks to unsettle the master/slave binary opposition by emphasizing the messiness in between.  Slavery made class more than it made race.  Nevertheless, slave history is irreducible to labor, even if labor is indispensable to slavery.  Focusing on the workplace, as this author does, provides insights into the quotidian operations of slave life from place to place and time to time.  It reveals, for instance, how slaves resisted their masters through dance and song (among other things).  The author separates North American slavery into distinct regions and experiences to suggest the variety of slave experience from locale to locale.  A society with slaves is different from a slave society because the former does not depend upon slavery in the economic realm, does not produce as many slaves, and does not press the master-slave dichotomy.  The way that societies with slaves transformed into slave societies differed from society to society, but each such society had brutality in common.  Labor and the struggle of master and slave over labor are instructive starting points from which to examine slavery in general.  The ideals of the Enlightenment, as well as democratic movements in America and elsewhere, gave slaves leverage to challenge their bondage on colonials’ own philosophical terms.

Quote:  “Locating the seat of social change in the workplace, rooting those changes in the material circumstances of African-American life, and connecting such material changes to the development of African-American institutions and beliefs offer a structure for historicizing the study of slavery.  The struggle over labor informed all other conflicts between master and slave, and understanding it opens the way to a full comprehension of slave society and the integration of the slave experience into the history of the American workingclass.  It also provides the material basis for an appreciation of agency within the confines of slavery and how resistance that fell short of revolution could be effective.” (11)

This book strives to avoid a totalizing or essentializing narrative of slavery.  It treats slavery on a case-by-case, place-by-place basis. Read the rest of this entry »

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