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Berlin is not the first to assert that slave life in the early history of the country was far from what it became before the Civil War. Another author notes, "In his study of the poor in early America, Philip D. Morgan notes that some slaves in the Chesapeake region might have had more material benefits than some destitute whites. Nonetheless, Morgan reiterates the famous observation of the scholar, Orlando Patterson, that slavery was 'social death'" (Rabe). Here is where Berlin and other authors differ. Berlin acknowledges the evils of slavery at times, but his book is more like an account of social and racial class formation, and it glosses over many of the harsh realities that have been often repeated in slavery. In this, he seems to do a disservice to the black community, and to those slaves who suffered during this time. He shows how slaves were free to work outside their duties for their masters, grew their own gardens, and had certain rights. However, they were still slaves, and still the property of another human being. He seems to think that because they had certain freedoms, they were better off, somehow, and this seems to be a little bit one-sided and unusual.
Berlin's book does, however, chronicle the slow shift from relative independence to new rules, regulations, and a much stricter way of life in the slave communities by the turn of the nineteenth century. He writes, "Indeed, by the end of the second decade of the nineteenth century, the internal economies initiated by the charter generations and maintained through the eighteenth century remained intact" (Berlin 347). However, the emerging plantation regime would begin to erode these freedoms, and as Berlin so aptly notes, "White supremacy manifested itself in every aspect of antebellum society, from the ballot box to he bedroom" (Berlin 363). Black slaves were disenfranchised on every level, lost most of the freedoms they had fought for in early centuries, and became mere chattel to their masters.
On the other hand, Berlin's book does not even touch on many aspects of slavery that occurred, even in the first two centuries of the practice, such as repeated beatings, attempts at escape, rebellion, and cruel and harsh treatment. Many of these things happened in the nineteenth century, after Berlin's scope of his book, but they occurred, and they are largely overlooked in Berlin's account. For example, Moses Roper writes in his slave narrative of a particularly violent beating after he attempted to run away from his cruel master. He writes,
They did this very near to a planter's house, the gentleman was not at home, but his wife came out and begged them not to kill me so near the house; they took no notice of this, but kept on beating me. They then fastened me to the axle-tree of their chaise, one of them got into the chaise, the other took my horse, and they run me all the eight miles as fast as they could; the one on my horse going behind to guard me (Bland 64).
This cruel treatment, unfortunately, is not unusual, in fact, it is chronicled in many of the most well-known and respected slave narratives, yet there is little mention of such treatment in Berlin's account. It certainly occurred during his period, and to de-emphasize it does a disservice to the people who lived through it and their ancestors.
In conclusion, Berlin's book does not glorify slavery, but it seems to downplay many of the aspects of slavery, leading the reader to conclude that slavery might not have been so "bad" after all. The author maintains that slavery helped create black society in America, and in that, he is most certainly correct. However, he does downplay certain aspects of slavery, although he does acknowledge it was a terrible premise. His points are well taken, but they seem to leave a bad taste in the mouth, nonetheless.
Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 1998.
Bland, Sterling Lecater, ed. African-American Slave Narratives: An Anthology. Vol. 1. Westport, CT:…[continue]
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