Historiography of Four Different Authors Works Term Paper

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¶ … historiography on four works written by four different authors. Each of these works depicts a time and place in the history of American slavery, and each makes unique and valid points regarding this "peculiar" institution. Each of them uses strong research and writing to make their points, but their points differ greatly and indicate how different people can view the diverse aspects of slavery in far different ways. In the end, John W. Blassingame's work seems to be the most interesting, well-researched, and factual account of slave life, it creates a balanced view of the community of slaves and how important that community was to their overall survival.

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips "American Negro Slavery" is clearly written with a bias toward the white slave owners, and a clear lack of understanding about the harshness of slave life. He portrays the whites and blacks in harmony, without any trace of animosity or hatred on either side, and he portrays the blacks as quite simple and accepting of their lot in life. For example, he writes, "At the horse races of the whites the jockeys and many of the spectators were negroes; while from the cock fights and even the 'crap' games of the blacks, white men and boys were not always absent."

Throughout this work, Phillips continually refers to the blacks condescendingly and without any recognition of the actual institution of slavery, in fact, he rarely mentions the word, instead using terms like "field hand" and other euphemisms to ignore the realities of the plight of these people. In fact, he portrays the blacks as week, immoral, and child-like all through his writing.

Much of this work is concerned with the blacks and their religion, which he shows to be very similar to their white masters. They might often attend the same church, even though they would not worship together, but in separate sections of the church. Like the rest of this work, Phillips portrays the blacks in a negative light, implying that they were not serious about their religion or beliefs. He writes, "There were a few licensed negro preachers, this writer continued, who were thought to do some good; but the general improvement in negro character, he thought, was mainly due to the religious and moral training given by their masters."

Most of the positive aspects of slave life Phillips cites are attributable to the masters, in his opinion, and this seems far removed from the realities of most slaves' lives.

Not only is this work clearly biased, it is based mainly on first-hand accounts of slave owners, rather than slaves themselves, and so it creates a very distorted picture of slave life and the culture of the South. There are so many first-hand accounts of violence, murder, and bigotry from slaves themselves, that Phillips book is simply not reliable or even valid. In perhaps one of the most infuriating points of the book, Phillips writes, "The adjustments and readjustments were mutually made, for although the masters had by far the major power of control, the slaves themselves were by no means devoid of influence."

There is never a mention of the beatings, the cruelties, the physical and mental abuse, the sexual liaisons, or anything else that has been clearly shown to be the regular treatment of blacks on southern plantations. Phillips accounts of slave life read more like fiction than real life, and they reduce his credibility and authority as a historian.

Phillips was one of the foremost American historians on slavery and southern life during his lifetime (1877 to 1934). He wrote several books, and taught at several universities, including Yale.

Today, his thoughts and theories seem outmoded and clearly biased toward the white slaveholding community. His bias and lack of humanity toward the slaves is clear, and his portrayal in this work is almost laughable in its innocence and sheer ignorance of the truth of the situation. As a slave historian, Phillips leaves much to be desired.

Stanley M. Elkins "Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life" is perhaps one of the most controversial books on slavery ever written. In it, Elkins maintained that American abolitionists were ineffectual because they insisted on ideology and purity, and compared them to British abolitionists, who managed to rid themselves of slavery without war. He also maintained that the institution of slavery infantilized slaves, and it closely resembled the concentration camps created by Nazi Germany, and had some of the same results on the psyche of both groups - slaves and Jews. The book, first published in 1959, created an uproar. This section of that book discusses how American slavery was an entirely "closed" system with very little ability for blacks to move outside the system. He then goes on to examine the "Sambo" stereotype of black slaves, (one that author Nell Irwin Painter soundly decries in her article, below).

In another controversial allegation, Elkins maintains that although the "black Sambo" stereotype is harmful and demeaning, it could actually have been a valid assessment of the personalities of many slaves. He writes, "It will be assumed that the sanctions of the system were in themselves sufficient to produce a recognizable personality type."

He notes that many of the aspects of this assessment are generalities, and that is not always a good way to judge history, but that it is legitimate because it is a "universal type" and exists so frequently in the literature and descriptions of the period.

To back up his claims, Elkins notes that the original Africans who came to America as slaves were culled from numerous tribes in Africa, and they shared very few commonalties. They did not all speak the same language, they had divergent religious beliefs, and they were essentially all very different. However, their common slave experience merged them into one cohesive culture, one that Elkins attributes with the stereotypical "Sambo" description. These include ignorance, laziness, shiftlessness, and a general innocence like that of a child. He also compares the concentration camps and their attempt to break down humans to childlike dependency and fear to the lives of slaves, in an attempt to prove his thesis, along with a discussion of child psychology to prove it, as well.

The most notable aspect of this reading is of course Elkins rather outlandish conclusions about slaves and slavery, including the Sambo philosophy and the concentration camp analogy. Elkins makes his points quite well, and spends a good amount of time backing up his assertions with research and examples. Probably the most difficult thing about this piece, other than the conclusions, is the massive amount of footnotes in the text. They break up the flow of the work, and often take up the majority of the printed page. While they certainly are crucial to the overall effectiveness and depth of the research Elkins has done, they are unwieldy in the book, and they might have been much more effective if they had been utilized as end notes, allowing the reader to ponder them at will, instead of forced to acknowledge them on every page.

As of 2004, historian Stanley Elkins was an emeritus professor at Smith College. He is most known for his book "Slavery," but he has written several other books, as well. One of his books won the Bancroft Prize, but he is most remembered for the controversy that began when "Slavery" was published, and the book underwent two revisions after that first edition. For the most part, his theories on slavery, particularly its comparison to concentration camps, is not seen as relative today as it was when the book was first published. His focus on research and teaching has been slavery and the American South.

John W. Blassingame's "The Slave Community" takes a deeper look into slavery and what drove the slave community. He writes, "The social organization of the quarters was the slave's primary environment which gave him his ethical rules and fostered cooperation, mutual assistance, and black solidarity."

Thus, Blassingame seems to use some of the same arguments that Painter does, namely that the slaves survived because of their family life and support in their homes, combined with their religious beliefs. In addition, he maintains the women were at the heart of this very vital social structure. He states, "They made the clothes, served as warriors, did the marketing, and worked in the fields alongside their husbands. The care and training of the children were primarily the responsibility of the women. As a result, a deep bond of affection developed between mothers and children."

It is clear he admires the mothers, but he understands their hardships as well.

And yet, he does not moralize about the aspects of slavery, especially those that tore the families apart. That is a far different reaction to the slave situation than most of the other writers here, because most of them very clearly moralize, according to their own biases and beliefs. Phillips moralizes on the side of the whites, Elkins moralizes on… [END OF PREVIEW]

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