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Fatal Self-Deception: Slaveholding Paternalism in the Old South Cambridge University Press Eugene D. Genovese


9th October 2012 History Books 13 Comments

Slaveholders were preoccupied with presenting slavery as a benign, paternalistic institution in which the planter took care of his family, and slaves were content with their fate. In this book, Eugene D. Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese discuss how slaveholders perpetuated and rationalized this romanticized version of life on the plantation. Slaveholders’ paternalism had little to do with ostensible benevolence, kindness, and good cheer. It grew out of the necessity to discipline and morally justify a system of exploitation. At the same time, this book also advocates the examination of masters’ relations with white plantation laborers and servants – a largely unstudied subject. Southerners drew on the work of British and European socialists to conclude that all labor, white and black, suffered de facto slavery, and they championed the South’s “Christian slavery” as the most humane and compassionate of social systems, ancient and modern.

In this remarkable culmination of four decades of intense study, Eugene Genovese and the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese marshal their impressive knowledge of slaveholding Southerners. With no holds barred they examine the disparate emotions and self-justifications of slaveholders’ ideas, including a true picture of the complex and even contradictory ideas of paternalism. Their analysis deepens our understanding of the social relationships that shaped the history of the American South, relationships with vast implications even today. Steeped in comprehensive research, Fatal Deception is cultural, social, legal, and philosophical history at its best–simply brilliant.” -Orville Vernon Burton, Clemson University, author of Age of Lincoln and In My Father’s House Are Many Mansions: Family and Community in Edgefield County, South Carolina

“‘One day they learned that they had been deceiving themselves and living intimately with people they did not know at all.’ This Eugene D. Genovese wrote more than four decades ago. In Fatal Self-Deception, Genovese and the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese demonstrate with unflinching clarity just how fatal this self-deception proved. This judicious assessment of the ‘burning contradictions’ that riddled slaveholder ideology traces the immensity of that deception in the face of the embarrassments that betrayed the poverty of its moral and intellectual foundation. All along the way, slaveholders scrubbed away evidence that they were not loved by the enslaved, that black people were not inherently inferior, preferred slavery to freedom, and would be wiped from the face of the earth by emancipation, denying in the process (and against opposing voices, South and North) slavery’s ‘unremitting despotism.’ In the end, as the authors write, ‘Slaveholders had trouble getting their story straight.’ The conundrums-including the place of poor white people in a slaveholding society-were unanswerable. The measureable consequence was the destruction of slavery in the US. A work of prodigious research.” -Thavolia Glymph, Duke University

“An extraordinarily learned and persuasive exploration of the intellectual world of the southern slaveowners, Fatal Self-Deception delves with unprecedented depth into the slaveholding mind and helps us make sense of their understanding of paternalism and their always fraught defense of slavery. This is a masterful work of historical scholarship, wholly impressive in every respect.” -Mark Smith, Carolina Distinguished Professor of History, University of South Carolina and author of How Race Is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses

“In remarkable ways, this brief, lapidary volume, the last in the Mind of the Master Class series, at once hones and culminates the argument, about planter hegemony’s rise, funcitons, operations, fall, and consequences, that Eugene Genovese and the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese developed over a half century. How, in the process of forming, living, and imposing their worldview, planters deceived themselves about their meaning to and relations with their bondpeople emerges powerfully. So does planters’ very different-and, in many respects, more distant and classist-regard of their white servitors, even when dining together. That thirty percent of the book is given to endnotes is a crude measure of the daunting research that underlies the work’s conclusions about the affective bonds and disconnects both in paternalist ideology and among the holders and those who resisted and bore the consequences of that hegemony’s emotional claims and sway.” -David Moltke-Hansen, Director, Simms Initiatives, University of South Carolina

“This thoughtful treatise lets slaveowners speak for themselves, showing how they struggled to square paternalism with the need for profit. Readers get a fresh look at the Southern master’s relationships with a host of household members. By drawing upon an immense number of original sources, the Genoveses persuasively argue that slaveowners practiced self-deception, not hypocrisy, by viewing their way of life as the best possible for all concerned.” -Jenny Wahl, Carleton College

Eugene D. Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese discuss how slaveholders perpetuated and rationalized a romanticized version of life on the plantation. Slaveholders’ paternalism grew out of the necessity to discipline and morally justify a system of exploitation. But at the same time, this book also advocates the examination of masters’ relations with white plantation laborers and servants – a largely unstudied subject. Southerners drew on the work of British and European socialists to conclude that all labor, white and black, suffered de facto slavery.

In this remarkable culmination of four decades of intense study, Eugene Genovese and the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese marshal their impressive knowledge of slaveholding Southerners. With no holds barred they examine the disparate emotions and self-justifications of slaveholders’ ideas, including a true picture of the complex and even contradictory ideas of paternalism. Their analysis deepens our understanding of the social relationships that shaped the history of the American South, relationships with vast implications even today. Steeped in comprehensive research, Fatal Deception is cultural, social, legal, and philosophical history at its best–simply brilliant.” -Orville Vernon Burton, Clemson University, author of Age of Lincoln and In My Father’s House Are Many Mansions: Family and Community in Edgefield County, South Carolina

“‘One day they learned that they had been deceiving themselves and living intimately with people they did not know at all.’ This Eugene D. Genovese wrote more than four decades ago. In Fatal Self-Deception, Genovese and the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese demonstrate with unflinching clarity just how fatal this self-deception proved. This judicious assessment of the ‘burning contradictions’ that riddled slaveholder ideology traces the immensity of that deception in the face of the embarrassments that betrayed the poverty of its moral and intellectual foundation. All along the way, slaveholders scrubbed away evidence that they were not loved by the enslaved, that black people were not inherently inferior, preferred slavery to freedom, and would be wiped from the face of the earth by emancipation, denying in the process slavery’s ‘unremitting despotism.’ In the end, as the authors write, ‘Slaveholders had trouble getting their story straight.’ The conundrums-including the place of poor white people in a slaveholding society-were unanswerable. The measureable consequence was the destruction of slavery in the US. A work of prodigious research.” -Thavolia Glymph, Duke University

“An extraordinarily learned and persuasive exploration of the intellectual world of the southern slaveowners, Fatal Self-Deception delves with unprecedented depth into the slaveholding mind and helps us make sense of their understanding of paternalism and their always fraught defense of slavery. This is a masterful work of historical scholarship, wholly impressive in every respect.” -Mark Smith, Carolina Distinguished Professor of History, University of South Carolina and author of How Race Is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses

“In remarkable ways, this brief, lapidary volume, the last in the Mind of the Master Class series, at once hones and culminates the argument, about planter hegemony’s rise, funcitons, operations, fall, and consequences, that Eugene Genovese and the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese developed over a half century. How, in the process of forming, living, and imposing their worldview, planters deceived themselves about their meaning to and relations with their bondpeople emerges powerfully. So does planters’ very different-and, in many respects, more distant and classist-regard of their white servitors, even when dining together. That thirty percent of the book is given to endnotes is a crude measure of the daunting research that underlies the work’s conclusions about the affective bonds and disconnects both in paternalist ideology and among the holders and those who resisted and bore the consequences of that hegemony’s emotional claims and sway.” -David Moltke-Hansen, Director, Simms Initiatives, University of South Carolina

“This thoughtful treatise lets slaveowners speak for themselves, showing how they struggled to square paternalism with the need for profit. Readers get a fresh look at the Southern master’s relationships with a host of household members. By drawing upon an immense number of original sources, the Genoveses persuasively argue that slaveowners practiced self-deception, not hypocrisy, by viewing their way of life as the best possible for all concerned.” -Jenny Wahl, Carleton College

Fatal Self-Deception: Slaveholding Paternalism in the Old South










  • 13 responses to "Fatal Self-Deception: Slaveholding Paternalism in the Old South Cambridge University Press Eugene D. Genovese"

  • Carli Chaffer
    6:04 on October 9th, 2012
    Reply to comment

    Thorough, nuanced, psychoanalytic and balanced; a tour de force: A prodigious work of American Historical scholarship.

    Genovese has done us all a great service and we should be immensely grateful to him for producing this masterpiece on one of the most unpleasant periods of American history.

    Even with some of the correctly pointed out shortcoming noted by other reviewers, Roll, Jordan, Roll still deserves a place in the Panthenon of American Historical Scholarship — along side John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom.

    I strongly disagree with other reviewer’s that the author’s conscious racist bias has somehow seeped in, flawed, colored and otherwise helped frame the context. To the extent this is true at all, it is almost certainly done unconsciously. However, to the author’s credit, it must be pointed out that time after time he has drawn a wide berth around the context (one reviewer referred to this as over-contextualizing) just so that the reader can decide for himself what the true nature of the substance is. The scholarship in this volume is so cleanly done that a charge of racist bias frankly is almost incongruous.

    For instance in discussing southern paternalism (referenced by an earlier reviewer), the section is prefaced with the following introductory paragraph:

    “Cruel, unjust, exploitative, oppressive, slavery bound two peoples together in bitter antagonism while creating an organic relationship so complex and ambivalent that neither could express the simplest human feelings without reference to the other.”

    The author then goes on to say that:

    “Southern paternalism, like every other paternalism, had little to do with Ole Massa’s ostensible benevolence, kindness, and good cheer. It grew out of the necessity to discipline and morally justify a system of exploitation.”

    None of this strikes me as the easily recognizable and consciously slanted racist tripe we are all so accustomed to by racist apologist American historians. On the contrary, Genovese appeals to a need for the reader to think more deeply about the broader outlines of the context of this two-way subhuman drama. He asks us to see in fact how slavery entrapped both slave and master into a subhuman form of existence, out of which a normalized dynamics had to, and eventually did evolve, and did so organically. And if there was ever any doubt about the author’s position then the following point made in the same section on paternalism should have put such doubts to rest:

    “But southern slave society was not merely one more manifestation of some abstraction called racist society. Its history was essentially determined by particular relationships of class power in racial form.”

    By my way of thinking, this is drawing out and exhibiting the kind of complexity one is unlikely to find in any American history book anywhere, and on any subject — not to mention on discussions about race and racism. Even the fact that there is an element of Marxist analysis lurking in the background does not bother me because it is appropriate and honestly applied – in the same way that WEB Du Bois applied it in his analysis of Reconstruction (See my review on Amazon.com).

    But more importantly, every page and every paragraph in this book is treated with the same incredible depth and scholarly sophistication. Nothing is left to chance; polemics and BS do not have a chance to enter the equation in this manuscript. The analysis throughout is solid, transparent, devastatingly clear and packed with information.

    If there is a better book in print, please refer me to it.

    Fifty stars.

    Reviewer: Herbert L. Calhoun, Ph.D. is the author of the forthcoming ” Cultures Shamed, Cultures Denied, and Cultures Erased: The Long-term Impact of Racism on American culture.”

  • Mea Larky
    10:21 on October 9th, 2012
    Reply to comment

    Genovese’s work, while extremely long and, I think pretentious at times in its tone, it is extemely well researched and is currently the last word on slave culture and the interaction between master and slave on southern plantations.

    One of his most striking observations that I can still rember reading even after five years is his concept of paternalism and how masters and slaves viewed the concept differently.

    Masters felt it was their duty to take care of their “children” the slaves by providing food and certain privilages, like whisky on Christmas and New Years. In return, masters expected obedience, but even more crucually, love in return. Slaves on the other hand saw those “privilages” as rights and would act up if certain privilages were taken away. When emancipation came, Genovese argues, that masters were really quite emotionally hurt when their slaves decided to run away–the masters came to see themselves as the only way that their “children” could survive. The hurt was even more acute when the slaves joined up with the union army to attack the very plantations and masters that took care of them. One can easily see how this feeling of ungratefulness could lead to cruelty and violence in the south following the civil war.

    When I was in college a few years back, this book was seen by my professors as _the_ final word on the subject of 19th century slave culture

  • BDRand
    13:10 on October 9th, 2012
    Reply to comment

    The Alpha and Omega of American slavery scholarship. No one has thought so carefully, researched so fully, written so gracefully on the most heart-breaking of historical subjects

  • Tracee Dirks
    17:37 on October 9th, 2012
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    African-American slaves were humans. Slaves exercised their human abilities by creating and maintaining culture and by resisting their masters. So what is the upheaval about? Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1972) by Eugene D. Genovese explores the master-slave relationship as a bond of class differences. By using a variety of sources, many never used before–for example, the voice of African-Americans both slave and free, the voice of white masters–he studies slaves as people, and he argues that slaves and masters both had their own individual cultures but that both groups reciprocally influenced the other’s cultural mores. This is a direct challenge to Kenneth M. Stampp’s assertion that “in slavery the Negro existed in a kind of cultural void” (364). His The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South (1956) focuses on slaves as being nothing more than property, thus virtually denying them all agency. It focuses on masters, and it neglects to include the African-American voice. In contrast to other works that focus on the masters or brutality of slavery, Genovese adopts what sociologists call a functionalist interpretation. He looks for attributes that help the oppressed and oppressors.

    Genovese does have certain features that easily stand out as controversial, especially as a result of the post-World War II era’s Civil Rights Movement and Cold War. He argues that slavery was not completely unlike other labor systems and class relationships that involved compromising, for example peasants, factory workers, or child laborers. Although these systems do have parallels to slavery, this is not necessarily politically correct. He has other facts that, regardless of their strength, might not be popular: slaves received more meat than poor people, slavery improved in the South from 1830-60, masters allowed burials whereas Nazis did not, slaves were not necessarily prepared or eager for freedom, some former slaves testified they preferred slavery, blacks sometimes enslaved themselves, evidence that laws were more brutal than reality (for example, laws against literacy or manumissions for slaves), and overseers or drivers (often African-Americans) were often more cruel than masters. Generally speaking, any image of slaves not working runs counter to historical and popular memory. As indicated elsewhere, slavery did evolve after the American Revolution into a more “humane” system. His Marxists rhetoric and analysis, along with his numerous citations of U.B. Phillips will tend to fluster some readers. Furthermore, Roll, Jordan, Roll’s interpretations largely rest on what Genovese calls a paternalistic relationship. Contemporary and philosophical connotations of paternalism overshadow his theory and definition: relationships based on hierarchies, where the higher-ups provide for the others.

    Certain aspects of Roll, Jordan, Roll do deserve a closer, critical look. Even though it is rightfully beyond this book’s polemic scope, it does not explore much of the violence and cruelty of slavery. Ignoring the unique psychological brainwashing involved in American raced-based plantation slavery is his most important omission. Considering the length and comprehensiveness of the entire book, along with the focus on interactions, this could have easily been addressed. Also, even though Genovese avoids generalizations and frequently cites both primary and secondary sources, including counter thoughts, a study this broad in scope is inevitably going to make some dangerous and incorrect assumptions. With his broad focus on types (e.g., preachers, mammies) and macro analysis, readers may still wonder: What was the actual experience of an individual slave? And how common was this experience? A study of this kind with a much smaller scope tracking one or two plantations and individuals over many years would be ideal, should the sources exist. At the same time, for the most part only intangible aspects of the cultural world slaves created, especially concerning religion and family, receive attention based on tangible evidence. What about things they created and invented? The artifacts are equally important.

    Overall, Roll, Jordan, Roll is a good, solid work of scholarship. It challenges readers to move beyond singular images of slavery and violence toward a fuller picture. Historiographically, this work gives African-American slaves agency and recognizes them as relevant actors. Studies that focus on slaves–or other oppressed individuals–exclusively as victims do as much harm to the legacy and memory as the original acts. In contrast to Philips’s scholarship, Genovese is not racist in his presentation of evidence; also, he does not perpetuate or support proslavery arguments. And Genovese never denies that slavery was a unique system based on and supported by racism. Yes, at times there are hints that tend to give masters and their “kindness” too much credit. But, readers must remember Genovese’s purpose.

  • Arondale
    22:48 on October 9th, 2012
    Reply to comment

    My son is a History Major in college and said that the book was a great resource.

  • Melda Mueske
    1:11 on October 10th, 2012
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    Slavery has often been referred to as America’s original sin. Eugene Genovese completed this seminal work on the “institution” that was (and some still say, is) slavery in the early `70′s. Politically, Genovese completed a familiar arc; in youth, he was a dedicated Marxist, and in his later years he become much more conservative, even converting to Roman Catholicism, like Graham Greene. Chapters entitled “Paternalism in modern bourgeois society” signal the “Marxist analysis,” which I consider to be only a minor irritant. How can one discuss slavery without raising the issue of class? Genovese’s account is one of the most thorough, erudite, and detailed that we are likely to have, covering the vast spectrum of topics involved in this painful subject.

    Genovese commences with an observation made by the noted historian C. Vann Woodward: “the ironic thing about these two great hyphenated minorities, Southern-Americans and Afro-Americans…is the degree to which they have shaped each other’s destiny, determined each other’s isolation, shared and molded a common culture.” One of the first points the author makes is that slavery need not rest on a racial basis, but, of course, the American variant was. And it was a “de jure” variant, as the author extensively covers in his review of the hegemonic function of the law. Imagine a legal system in which rape meant only the rape of a white woman. A black woman could not be raped, according to the law!

    Fresh insights abound in this work. Lynching is a crime most often associated as one in which the victim was black but Genovese claims that of the three hundred or so cases between 1840 and 1860, only 10% were against blacks (many times the victim was a white “negrophile”). The author could easily have been dismissive of religion (`the opium of the people”) but understood its importance in maintaining the dignity and resistance of Blacks to their fate, and thus dedicates a fair portion of the book to this topic, and commences this section by goading the reader: “In this secular, not to say cynical, age few tasks present greater difficulty than that of compelling the well-educated to take religious matters seriously.” Indeed, for a “Marxist,” Genovese knows his Bible well; scripture reverberates throughout his account, in epigraphs, and more. The slaves evolved a syncretic religion, adopted the outward forms of Christianity to their native African beliefs and rituals. The author details how initially white preachers led the “conversion,” but that ultimately a class of black preachers would “shepherd their flocks.”

    The nature of work and social relations constitute other major portions of this work. How hard would you work if your received none of the fruits of your labor? Instead of understanding how any of us would react to that predicament, it was essential for whites to evolve a theory that blacks were inherently “lazy.” The author contrasts that attitude with the results of blacks who became free men, and learned technical skills. In terms of social relations, Genovese examines the multitude of mechanisms available to keep blacks “in their place,” and in particular, how sexual relations were twisted and distorted by a purported need to separate the races. Yet, as the author says: “Because three-quarters or so of today’s Afro-American population in the United States reputedly has some white ancestry, we seek its origins primarily in the easy access to slave women provided by plantation slavery.” Today, words such as “miscegenation” and “mulatto” have largely fallen into disuse, yet in numerous states the former was against the law when this book was written.

    There are solid sections on the slave revolts, notably the one led by Nat Turner. In terms of his “white counterpart,” John Brown, who the author calls “fanatic, millenarian, and possibly mad” but this only underscores the rhetorical question, applicable then, and possibly even now: “What judgment should be rendered on a society the evils of which reach such proportions that only madmen are sane enough to challenge them?” Outright revolts failed, a victim, according to the author, of the strength of paternalist relationships that maintained control.

    One reviewer call this work “dated.” Well, if one can overlook phrases such as “…but the slaves’ place in that hegemonic system reflected deep contradictions, manifested in the dialectic of accommodation and resistance.” then I believe the present reader will find this work as essential and vital today as when it was written. Is all this ancient history, or does it live on today, in less “de jure” forms, in a system which demands that substantial illegal immigration exist, so that there will almost be an undifferentiated amorphous pool of labor, willing to work for a pittance, without legal rights? Roll, Jordan, Roll remains an important 5-star plus read.

  • Karla Shelton
    6:08 on October 10th, 2012
    Reply to comment

    The foundation of the master-slave relationship, according to Genovese, rested on the ideology of paternalism. Within the highly complex social strata of the American Slave South, the cultural hegemony of the master class and its articulation of organic reciprocity at once reinforced and mediated power disparities in race and class. Trading the loyalty and absolute obedience of their slave property for a professed benevolence and basic material needs, the slaveholding master class sought to make the institution of slavery more humane and more capable of withstanding challenges to its survival. In the process, the author argues that paternalism came to define both master and slave in a dialectic fashion. Relying on the absolute obedience of the slaves, masters came to frame their self-identities as enlightened patriarchs worthy of praise and emulation in the pantheon of civility. Slaves, on the other hand, collectively asserted themselves for recognition of their own humanity. In the context of unequal power relations, Genovese suggests that the latter result constituted no small victory. Although it was indeed far from overthrowing the shackles of bondage, such concessions constituted blatant evidence of group agency and the willingness of slaves to assert their humanity among the most abject of conditions.

    Even as a synthetic work more than three decades old, ‘Roll, Jordan, Roll’ remains an impressive work filled with big ideas and pathbreaking themes. Its willingness to examine the worldview of both master and slave in a comparative framework constituted a fruitful first step in understanding the relational complexities of power to culture. Attempting to go beyond the works of Abtheker, Gutman, and Stampp, Genovese’s insistence on resurrecting the ghost of U.B. Phillips long enough to take the master class’s contradictions and self-delusions seriously was daring and, in many respects, at once perplexing and somewhat misunderstood by numerous critics. While the crux of ‘Roll, Jordan, Roll’ has made its way into most studies on southern slavery since its debut, in one form or another, the master-slave dynamic continues to be a powerful one that finds eager scholars and audiences willing to wrestle with its shock value, absurdities, inconsistencies, regional variances, and the like. No matter what faults subsequent historians attribute to it, after Genovese’s work it has become unthinkable to conceive of either party within a historical vacuum.

    The burden of time has complicated the modern reading of ‘Roll, Jordan, Roll’. For one thing, a wave of scholarship has convincingly argued that the relationship of southern slaveholding to the market economy and that masters were vastly more capitalist oriented businessmen than Genovese’s argument suggests, gives the work at times an almost stubborn and na?ve bend. To read his assertions within the context of these newer studies is to find the oftentimes perplexing monolithic portrait of slavery from the Upper to Lower South across time and space; a minimization of the impact of transatlantic market influences fostered by goods, Enlightenment print culture and interaction; and an account absent the complexities that positioned slavery in tension with abolition across continents, cultures, and entire hemispheres. More sophisticated studies have, and must continue, to account for the incontrovertible fact that southern slavery varied widely under an otherwise all-encompassing umbrella in all but name only.

  • John Weissman
    9:59 on October 10th, 2012
    Reply to comment

    This was one of the most interesting books I have read in history (up there with Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre). There is the tendency to view blacks of slavery times as victims and victims only; this book conveys the richness of the culture and more importantly their humanity; The chapters on courtship rituals were extremely entertaining and fascinating. I haven’t read widely of the time period, but this ranks as the best of what I’ve read so far.

  • roger hunt
    11:54 on October 10th, 2012
    Reply to comment

    “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” by Eugene D. Genovese goes into great detail on the subject. While Genovese is hardly an apologist for Southern slaveholders, he fully documents their case, citing numerous sociologists and historians who state that the physical living conditions of most slaves exceeded that of the working poor of Europe (and in many cases America as well). Virginia planters such as the people I descend from tended to treat their slaves better than those on the frontier or people like the ancestors of Edward Ball (Slaves in the Family), who owned enormous rice plantations. Don’t get the idea that anyone gets off easy. The hypocracy and cruelty of the slaveholder class is documented in painful detail. The book is at times overly academic, but Genovese quotes extensively from court decisions, slaveholder correspondence and accounts by former slaves and those who fought for their freedom. Whether your interest in the subject is academic or personal, I doubt you will find a more thoroughly documented account of America’s most “peculiar” institution.

  • DevCompany
    19:53 on October 10th, 2012
    Reply to comment

    One thing I’ve consistently noted in reading reviews on Black Studies Books is that (apparently white, clearly misinformed) reviewers completely dismiss the point of these books, namely, that American slavery is considered by most historians to be the most cruel and brutal ever and that Trans-Atlantic slavery, in particular, is NOT the same thing as other forms of slavery—especially those in Africa before European nation contact. Trans-Atlantic European slavery is commercial slavery. the Wealth of the state DEPENDED on it at ALL costs. Genovese does a lot of work in clearing up that misconception and misunderstanding. Specfically, he fixes the historical whitewash that Stamp does in making the conditions of slavery more important than the existence of slavery. Genovese is perhaps one of the ranking last words on slavery. The book lends itself to an in depth psychological examination of slavery which more accurately than Stamp’s suggest that people do not always act in the better material interests even when they are aware of the consequences of their actions. Genovese indicates there was a strong material motive for slavery—what else could justify the extreme economic and psyhic expense of it? But also, Genovese is one of the first scholars to begin to examine the consequences that whites suffered in dehumanizing themselves by dehumanizing others—a condition that persists today in the form of white supremacy and socalled globalization.

  • Robert Wade
    6:23 on October 11th, 2012
    Reply to comment

    I read this book while in graduate school and found it among the more informative and fascinating books I read for the class to which it was assigned. Genovese writes in an intelligent style that is fast paced. This is not a typical dry history book. Even though slavery in America is not one of my specialties, this book made me aware of things I never knew.

    Slavery is detestable to our modern society, but like it or not, it is part of our heritage. The world the slaves made lives on with us today. Genovese writes that white culture, particularly the culture of the poor whites, is very much in alignment with the world of the slaves. This book traces religion, family, social structures, daily life, and the life as slaves that black Americans experienced. Much of what is present (at least at the time this book was written and published) is clearly evident in the world the slaves made. Let’s face it, life as a slave is nothing anyone would want to recreate (no modern reality TV show would ever dare such a concept) but for those who had to endure it, they made the most of their lives and our nation has benefited from that experience.

    I recommend this book for American historians and social historians. The casual reader may be intimidated by the length, but it is worth every minute spent on it.

  • arcanys
    13:29 on October 11th, 2012
    Reply to comment

    I would give a very mixed review to Genovese’s “Roll Jordan Roll”. The book does contain a good deal of interesting information on the culture, customs and spirituality developed by slaves as they tried to carve out some world of their own within their circumscribed situation.

    However I agree with other reviewers that this work is flawed in the way it deals with relations between slaveholders and enslaved. To portray a system based on severe physical coercion as being based on acquiesence by those on the bottom to the relatively benevolent rule of those at the top, is not only incorrect but to me seems to be flavored with that same condescending paternalism. Between slave-owning families and house slaves there were sometimes especially close, even fond relationships influenced by paternalistic attitudes (and in some cases actual paternity–though that was often more of a liability than a guarantee of good treatment); and some slaves thought themselves fortunate to have a (relatively) kind master, considering the alternatives. But weighting the focus toward the least brutal examples of American slavery implies that this was the most common slave experience, despite the huge amount of slave testimony as well as other documentary evidence that refutes this. Slaveholders might have had their feelings hurt when one of their slave “children” ran away, but if they managed to catch that recalcitrant runaway they usually did not hesitate to punish their “child” with torture or mutilatation.

    The book’s flaws diminish the impact of its strengths; a more realistic description of the brutality experienced by so many enslaved Africans and African Americans under a system kept in place by violence and fear, would have made all the more impressive the ways in which they, with unquenchable spirit and creativity, were able to retain their humanity and develop such a rich culture, .

  • waynester
    14:49 on October 11th, 2012
    Reply to comment

    Known as a classic in the genre, “Roll, Jordan, Roll” is a comprehensive examination of life in the slave south. Unlike other books of its type, Genovese explores both the slave and the slave owner’s life and culture. The book extensively documents rare sources recording the views of the white slave owning culture.

    Though comprehensive, at times “Roll, Jordan, Roll” seems to minimize the horrors of slavery by under-representing many of the powerful slave narratives and by over-representing quotations from slave owners. Genovese is best in his discussion of the religion of slaves. The use of more firsthand accounts from the enslaved Christians themselves would have been helpful to readers.

    Over three decades old now, there are many books available which provide a complete presentation of both sides in the slavery experience. First, readers would benefit greatly from primary source books on the topic. Just a few of these first-hand examples written by those who had been there, include: Octavia Albert, “The House of Bondage or Charlotte Brooks and Other Slaves,” William Andrews, “North Carolina Slave Narratives: The Lives of Moses Roper, Lunsford Lane, Moses Grandy, and Thomas H. Jones,” Henry Bibb, “Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb: An American Slave,” John Blassingame, “Slave Testimony,” Arna Bontemps, “Five Black Lives: The Autobiographies of Venture Smith, James Mars, William Grimes, The Rev. G. W. Offley, and James Smith,” Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, “Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery,” Olaudah Equiano, “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or, Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself,” Alexander Falconbridge, “An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa,” Thomas Higginson, “Army Life in a Black Regiment and Other Writings,” Harriet Jacobs, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” Elizabeth Keckley, “Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House,” James Mellon, “Bullwhip Days: The Slaves Remember, An Oral History,” Gilbert Osofsky, “Puttin’ On Ole Massa: The Slave Narratives of Henry Bibb, William Wells Brown, and Solomon Northup,” Daniel Payne, “Recollections of Seventy Years,” Charles Perdue, “Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves,” Peter Randolph, “From Slave Cabin to Pulpit,” George Rawick, “The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography (19 Volumes).”

    Secondary sources that extend the scope of presentation include: Anne Bailey, “African Voices of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Beyond the Silence and the Shame,” Ira Berlin, “Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America,” Dwight Hopkins, “Down, Up, and Over: Slave Religion and Black Theology,” Walter Johnson, “Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market,” Anne Pinn, “Fortress Introduction to Black Church History,” Albert Raboteau, Albert, “Canaan Land: A Religious History of African Americans,” Hugh Thomas, “The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-1870.”

    Among the primary sources listed, the ones by Falconbridge and Higginson provide eye-witness accounts of the horrors of enslavement and the African American attitude toward those horrors by white authors who were there. The other primary sources listed provide first-hand accounts of African Americans who lived through the abuses of slavery.

    Readers wanting immediate access to the views of those who experienced slavery in all its dehumanization, can visit the Library of Congress web site to read interviews of ex-enslaved men and women dictated in the 1930s. Supplementing these with the slave narratives mentioned above will provide the lay reader and aspiring expert/scholar with the research tools necessary to understand the world of enslavement.

    Reviewer: Robert W. Kellemen, Ph.D. is the author of “Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction,” “Soul Physicians,” and “Spiritual Friends.”

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