***** Right Church, Wrong Pew: Eugene Genovese & Southern Conservatism
[from New Politics, vol. 6, no. 3 (new series), whole no. 23, Summer 1997]
...In his brilliant account of the paternalism that inextricably bound master and slave together, an idea most fully developed in his account of "the world the slaves made" in Roll, Jordan, Roll, Genovese recognized that slavery, even at its most patriarchal, always rested on physical compulsion. In its complexity, historicity, and sheer dialectical power Genovese's account of how a ruling class did in fact rule in a markedly unjust system proved compelling. Nevertheless, even among his admirers, there was always a nagging doubt that he was somehow letting the slavocracy off the hook just a little too much. Even then he claimed that slaveholders "stood for a world different from our own that is worthy of our sympathetic attention" and that "the values they held still have something to offer."1...
1.The World the Slaveholders Made: Two Essays in Interpretation, 2nd ed., (Hanover, NH, 1988), p. 126....
And keep in mind that Alex Lichtenstein's is a very generous & sympathetic assessment of Genovese's scholarship on slavery. I myself think that Genovese underestimates two things -- specifically capitalist aspects of modern slavery & slaves' masked resistances & worldviews:
1. Slavery in the American South (and elsewhere in the "New World") differed from traditional paternalistic societies of the pre-capitalist world. Slavery was not wage labor, but it was incorporated in, and hence shaped by, capitalism. And to the degree that slavery was incorporated in capitalism, the _practice_ of slavery can't be seen as if it had been a paternalistic feudal relation, though the _ideology_ that legitimated it in the master's eyes, as Genovese argues, was a paternalistic one.
2. One can't say that slaves' resistances were minimal because outright revolts like Nat Turner's & Denmark Vesey's were few. Slaves resisted in a variety of ways: pretending to be stupid, making deliberate mistakes, sabotaging equipment, slowing down, running away, etc. One readily understands this wide range of resistance by reading slave narratives & oral histories of ex-slaves. Now, here's W. E. B. DuBois: "All observers spoke of the fact that the slaves were slow and churlish; that they wasted material and malingered at work. Of course they did. This was not racial but economic. It was the answer of any group of laborers forced down to the last ditch. They might be made to work continuously but no power could make them work well" (_Black Reconstruction in America_).
Like Amasa Delano, Genovese can't see beyond the masks worn by slaves & masters:
***** We Wear the Mask
We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,-- This debt we pay to human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise, In counting all our tears and sighs? Nay, let them only see us, while We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries To thee from tortured souls arise. We sing, but oh the clay is vile Beneath our feet, and long the mile; But let the world dream otherwise, We wear the Mask!
Paul Laurence Dunbar *****
When you see only the masks worn by the slaves, you see, as Genovese does, the slaves' dependence on whites: "Racism undermined the slaves' sense of worth as black people and reinforced their dependence of white masters" (Genovese _Roll, Jordan, Roll_ 6). Whites have been dependent on blacks (as masters in the slave South but also even after the Civil War), as Genovese notes, but, pace Genovese, blacks have had their own sense of worth & been not so dependent on whatever masters & whites in general thought, certainly not to the extent that Genovese says.