The Shape of American Slavery
The slave system in America was unique in human history. Sometimes slaves were treated cruelly; at other times with kindness. They were more often used as a sign of affluence, a way of displaying one's wealth and of enjoying luxury, rather than as the means for the systematic accumulation of wealth. Previously, slavery had existed in hierarchical societies in which the slave was at the bottom of a social ladder, the most inferior in a society of unequals. While each society normally preferred to choose its slaves from alien people, it did not limit its selection exclusively to the members of any one race. Slave inferiority did not lead necessarily to racial inferiority. In contrast to this, slavery in America was set apart by three characteristics: capitalism, individualism, and racism.
Capitalism increased the degree of dehumanization and depersonalization implicit in the institution of slavery. While it had been normal in other forms of slavery for the slave to be legally defined as a thing, a piece of property, in America he also became a form of capital. Here his life was regimented to fill the needs of a highly organized productive system sensitively attuned to the driving forces of competitive free enterprise. American masters were probably no more cruel and no more sadistic than others, and, in fact, the spread of humanitarianism in the modern world may have made the opposite true. Nevertheless, their capitalistic mentality firmly fixed their eyes on minimizing expenses and maximizing profits. Besides being a piece of property, the American slave was transformed into part of the plantation machine, a part of the ever-growing investment in the master' mushrooming wealth.
The development of slavery in America resulted from the working of economic forces and not from climatic or geographic conditions. When the first twenty Africans reached Virginia in 1619, the colony was comprised of small plantations dependent on free white labor. While some historians believe that these immigrants were held in slavery from the beginning, most think they were given the status of indentured servants. English law contained no such category as slavery, and the institution did not receive legal justification in the colony until early in the 1660s. Although the fact of slavery had undoubtedly preceded its legal definition, there was a period of forty years within which the Africans had some room for personal freedom and individual opportunity. Rumors of deplorable working conditions and of indefinite servitude were reaching England and discouraging the flow of free white labor. To counter this, a series of acts were passed which legally established the rights of white labor, but they did nothing to improve the status of the African. In fact, their passage pushed them relentlessly towards the status of slave.
The price of tobacco declined sharply in the 1660s and drove the small white farmer to the wall. Only those with enough capital to engage in large-scale operations could continue to make a profit. In order to fill the need for the huge labor supply required large-scale agriculture, the colonial legislature passed laws giving legal justification to slavery. At the same time, Charles II granted a royal charter establishing a company to transport African slaves across the ocean and thereby increasing the supply of slaves available to the colonial planter.
Until this time, the number of Africans in the colony had been very small, but thereafter their numbers grew rapidly. The African slaves provided the large, dependable, and permanent supply of labor which these plantations required. The small white planter and the free white laborer found the road to economic success had become much more difficult. To be a successful planter meant that he had to begin with substantial capital investments. Capitalist agriculture substantially altered the social structure of the colony. On one hand, it created a small class of rich and powerful white planters. On the other, it victimized the small white planters, or white laborers, and the ever-growing mass of African slaves.
The second unique factor in American slavery was the growth of individualism. While this democratic spirit attracted many European immigrants, it only served to increase the burden of slavery for the African. Instead of being at the bottom of the social ladder, the slave in America was an inferior among equals. A society which represented itself as recognizing individual worth and providing room for the development of talent, rigidly organized the entire life of the slave and gave him little opportunity to develop his skills. In America, a person's worth became identified with economic achievement. To be a success in Virginia was to be a prosperous planter, and white individualism could easily become white oppression leaving no room for black individualism. The existence of slavery in a society which maintained its belief in equality was a contradiction which men strove diligently to ignore.
Perhaps this contradiction can be partly understood by seeing the way in which individual rights had come into being in English society. Instead of springing from a belief in abstract human rights, they were an accumulation of concrete legal and political privileges which had developed since Magna Charta. Viewing it in this light, it may have been easier for the white colonists to insist on their rights while denying them to the slaves. Nevertheless, the existence of slavery in the midst of a society believing in individualism increased its dehumanizing effects.
The third characteristic which set American slavery apart was its racial basis. In America, with only a few early and insignificant exceptions, all slaves were Africans, and almost all Africans were slaves. This placed the label of inferiority on black skin and on African culture. In other societies, it had been possible for a slave who obtained his freedom to take his place in his society with relative ease. In America, however, when a slave became free, he was still obviously an African. The taint of inferiority clung to him.
Not only did white America become convinced of white superiority and black inferiority, but it strove to impose these racial beliefs on the Africans themselves. Slave masters gave a great deal of attention to the education and training of the ideal slave, In general, there were five steps in molding the character of such a slave: strict discipline, a sense of his own inferiority, belief in the master's superior power, acceptance of the master's standards, and, finally, a deep sense of his own helplessness and dependence. At every point this education was built on the belief in white superiority and black inferiority. Besides teaching the slave to despise his own history and culture, the master strove to inculcate his own value system into the African's outlook. The white man's belief in the African's inferiority paralleled African self hate.
Slavery has always been an evil institution, and being a slave has always been undesirable. However, the slave in America was systematically exploited for the accumulation of wealth. Being a slave in a democracy, he was put outside of the bounds of society. Finally, because his slavery was racially defined, his plight was incurable. Although he might flee from slavery, he could not escape his race.
North American and South American Slavery
Slavery, as it existed in British North America, contained interesting points of comparison and contrast with the slave system existing in Portuguese and Spanish South America. Although both institutions were geared to the needs of capitalistic agriculture, the rights and privileges of the South American planter were restricted and challenged at many points by the traditional powers the Crown and the Church. On one hand, capitalism, unimpeded by other powerful institutions, created a closed slave system which regimented the totality of the slave's life. On the other hand, through the clash of competing institutions, the slave as been left with a little opportunity in which he could develop as a person.
In the seventeenth century, while the British colonies were being established in North America and their slave system was being created, the English Crown underwent a series of severe shocks including two revolutions. Although it eventually emerged secure, the monarchy managed to survive only by making its peace with the emerging commercial and industrial forces. These same crises undermined the authority of the Church as a powerful institution in society. The nonconformist sects were the stronghold of the merchant class and spread rapidly in the American colonies. There, instead of being a check on the commercial spirit, the Church itself had become dominated by the middle class. Equally important is the fact that in colonial America the level of religious life was very low. Most colonists, with the exception of the original founders who had fled religious persecution, did not come for religious freedom but for economic advancement. When some Virginians at the end of the seventeenth century, petitioned the government to build a college for the training of ministers, they were told to forget about the cure of souls and instead to cure tobacco. The result was that the planter class, unchallenged by any other powerful institutions, was free to shape a slave system to meet its labor needs. In any conflict which arose between personality rights and property rights the property rights of the master were always protected.
In contrast, the South American planter would not have such a free hand in shaping his own affairs. The Renaissance and Reformation had not made the same impact on Spain and Portugal as they did on the rest of Western Europe. Consequently, secularization and commercialization had not progressed as far in eroding the traditional power and prestige of the Crown and the Church. Although both institutions readily compromised with capitalist interests and strove to develop a working alliance with them, neither the Crown nor the Church in Spain and Portugal had ever been taken over by the commercial interests.
Both Spain and Portugal had had continuous contact with slavery extending back into ancient times. Roman law as well as the Church fathers had concerned themselves with it, and these concepts had been incorporated into Spanish and Portuguese law. Also, slaves continued to exist in both countries down to modern times. Therefore, when Portugal began importing slaves from West Africa in the fifteenth century, the institution of slavery was already in existence. Before long, significant numbers of African slaves were to be found in both Portugal and Spain. When the South American planters began importing slaves, slavery already had a framework and a tradition within which the planter had to operate .
The Spanish Crown devoted a great deal of time and energy to the supervision of its overseas possessions. Instead of permitting considerable local autonomy as the British did, the Spanish Council of the Indies in Madrid assumed a stance of illiberal, paternal, bureaucratic control. From the point of view of the colonial capitalists, the cumbersome royal bureaucracy was always involved in troublesome meddling which impeded their progress. As part of the careful management of its colonies, the Crown strove to control the operation of the slave trade. Similarly, it was concerned with the treatment of the African slaves within the colonies. The Spanish Crown included the slaves as persons instead of relegating them solely to the status of property at the disposal of their owners.
The Church, as a powerful institution, jealously guarded its right to be the guardian and protector of social morality. Besides being concerned with influencing individual behavior, the Church insisted that it was a social institution with the right to interfere in matters relating to public morals. In fact, it was through this role that the Church was able to exercise its worldly powers. While condemning slavery as an evil and warning that it endangered those who participated in it, the Church found it expedient to accept slavery as a labor system. However, it insisted that the African slaves must be Christianized. Missionaries were sent to the trading stations on the African coast where the captives were baptized and catechized. The Church feared that the purity of the faith might be undermined by the infusion of pagan influences. Then, when a slave ship reached the New World, a friar boarded the ship and examined the slaves to see that the requirements had been met. The Church also insisted that the slaves become regular communicants, and it liked to view itself as the champion of their human rights.
The degree to which the individual rights of the slave were either protected or totally suppressed provides a clearer insight to the differences between North American and South American slavery. The laws outlining the rights of slaves have been traditionally placed into four categories: term of servitude, marriage and the family, police and disciplinary powers, and, finally, property and other civil rights.
In both systems the term of servitude was for life, and the child's status was inherited from its mother. Children of slave mothers were slaves, and children of free mothers were free regardless of the status of the father. Inherited lifetime slavery was the norm.
Manumission--granting freedom--was infrequent in British North America. Occasionally, masters who had fathered slave children would later give them their freedom. A few other slaves were able to purchase their own freedom although, strictly speaking, this was a legal impossibility. The slave was not able to own property according to the law, and this meant that the money with which he purchased his freedom had always belonged to his master. Obviously, he could only do this with his master's fullest cooperation.
In South America, however, manumission was much more frequent. This practice received highly favorable social sanction, and masters often celebrated national holidays, anniversaries, birthdays, and other special events by manumitting one or more of their favorite slaves.
The law also defended the right of the slave to purchase his own freedom. He had the right to own property and could accumulate funds with which he might eventually achieve his dream. He also had the right to demand that his master or the courts set a fixed price for his purchase which he could then pay over a period of years. Sundays and holidays were for the slave to use as he saw fit, and, in some cases, he was also guaranteed a couple of hours every day for his own use. During this time he could sell his services and save the proceeds. The law also stated that parents of ten or more children were to be set free. Finally, slaves could be freed by the courts as the result of mistreatment by their masters.
While there was much sentiment in North America supporting marriages among slaves, and there was much animosity against masters who separated families through sale, the law was unambiguous on this point. Slaves were property, and therefore could not enter into contracts including contracts of marriage. Jurists also noted that to prevent the sale of separate members of a family would lower the sale price, and this was to tamper with a man's property. Therefore, property rights had to be placed above marriage rights. In contrast, in South America the Church insisted that slave unions be brought within the sacrament of marriage. The Church also strove to limit promiscuous relationships between slaves as well as between masters and slaves, and it encouraged marriage instead of informal mating. Also, the law forbade the separate sale of members of the family, husband, wife, and children under the age of ten.
The general thrust of the laws outlining police and disciplinary powers in North America was to entrust complete jurisdiction to the master. One judge had laid down the law that the master's power must be absolute in order to render slave obedience perfect, and, although the courts were empowered to discipline slaves in certain situations, the masters generally acted as judges, juries, and dispensers of punishments. In those rare cases where the law did protect the slave against extreme mistreatment, its protection was nullified by the universal proscription against any slave or Black person testifying in court against any white. The court also had assumed that it was irrational for a man to destroy his own property, and, therefore, it was impossible for a master to commit premeditated murder against one of his own slaves.
However, in South America the court exercised much more Jurisdiction over the slave. Crimes committed by a slave were prosecuted by the court, and, if a slave was murdered, this case was prosecuted by the court as if the victim had been a free man. The law also made a more concerted attempt to protect the slave against mistreatment by his master. A certain type of state lawyer was an official protector of the slaves; he received regular reports on slave conditions from priests as well as from special investigative officials who had been appointed by the state for this purpose. Mistreatment could lead both to the freedom of the slave and to the imprisoning of the master. The law had devised an ingenious system whereby the fine was divided equally between the judge, the informer, and the state treasury.
Finally, the slave in North America could not own property and had absolutely no civil rights. The.law clearly stated that he could neither own. inherit, or will property nor engage in buying and selling except at the pleasure of his master. In contrast, the slave in South America could own property, could engage in buying and selling, and was guaranteed Sundays, holidays, and other times which to work for his own advancement. In short, the law implied that while the master could own a man's labor, he could not own the man as a person
It is not easy to make a final comparison between these two slave systems. South American masters often evaded the law and would be exceedingly brutal, and North American masters were often much more lenient than the law required. Conditions moreover, were usually more severe in South America, and this fact may have worsened the actual material situation of South American slave. Nevertheless, in North America the slave was consistently treated as a "thing." In South America there was some attempt to treat him as a man. This fact made a profound difference in the way in which the two systems affected the slave as an individual, and in the way in which they impinged upon the development of his personality.
Slavery and the Formation of Character
The study of American slavery, frequently consisting of a heated debate concerning the institution's merits, has, in recent years, branched into new directions. Scholars have become engaged in the comparative examination of differing slave systems such as those of North and South America. More recently, Stanley M. Elkins has begun an inquiry into the impact of a slave system in forming the individual character of the slaves within that system. In his provocative study, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life, he has made some interesting comparisons between the American slave system and the German concentration camps and has endeavored to account for their respective impacts on character formation through the social- psychological theories of personality formation.
In Elkins's thinking, the concentration camps were a modern example of a rigid system controlling mass behavior. Because some of those who experienced them were social scientists trained in the skills of observation and analysis, they provide a basis for insights into the way in which a particular social system can influence mass character. While there is also much literature about American slavery written both by slaves and masters, none of it was written from the viewpoint of modern social sciences. However, Elkins postulates that a slave type must have existed as the result of the attempt to control mass behavior, and he believes that this type probably bore a marked resemblance to the literary stereotype of "Sambo." Studying concentration camps and their impact on personality provides a tool for new insights into the working of slavery, but, warns Elkins, the comparison can only be used for limited purposes. Although slavery was not unlike the concentration camp in many respects, the concentration camp can be viewed as a highly perverted form of slavery, and both systems were ways of controlling mass behavior
The "Sambo" of American slave literature was portrayed as being docile but irresponsible, loyal but lazy, humble but chronically given to lying and stealing. He was a child figure, often demonstrating infantile silliness and exaggeration, exasperating but lovable and, above all, utterly dependent on and attached to his master. The master explained this behavior as the result of the slave's race or of his primitive African culture.
While assuming that many slaves did approximate the character of "Sambo," Elkins absolutely rejects any racial or cultural explanation. Modern African studies have not led to any evidence of a "Sambo" type in Africa. Similarly, the literature of South America does not contain any figure comparable to him. Apparently, "Sambo" was not merely the result of slavery, but he was the result of the unique form of slavery which developed in North America. Unrestricted in his powers by institutions such as the crown and the Church, the American slave master had gained total control of his slave property. In a desire to maximize the profits of his investment, he strove to develop the perfect slave. Although the slave might endeavor to conform externally while maintaining his inner integrity, eventually his performance as an ideal slave must have affected the shape of his personality. Modern existentialism has argued that how we behave determines what we are, and it is in this sense that the controlled behavior in the concentration camp and its impact on personality formation provide an illuminating parallel to the study of American slavery.
The experienced gained in the German concentration camps during the Second World War showed that it was possible to induce widespread infantile behavior in masses of adults. Childlike action extended beyond obedience to the guards and showed that a basic character transformation had occurred. Previous social-psychological theory stressed the ways in which an individual's personality was shaped during his earliest childhood years and emphasized the tenacity with which these early traits resisted attempt at alteration. Personality theory was not adequate to what occurred in the camps.
The concentration camp experience began with what has become labeled as shock procurement. As terror was one of the many tools of the system, surprise late-night arrests were the favorite technique. Camp inmates generally agreed that the train ride to the camp was the point at which they experienced the first brutal torture. Herded together into cattle cars, without adequate space, ventilation, or sanitary conditions, they had to endure the horrible crowding and the harassment of the guards. When they reached the camp, they had to stand naked in line and undergo a detailed examination by the camp physician. Then, each was given a tag and a number. These two events were calculated to strip away one's identity and to reduce the individual to an item within an impersonal system.
One's sense of personhood was further undermined by the fact that there was never any privacy. The individual had lost both his identity and his power. Everything was done to him or for him, but nothing was ever done by him. The guards had the power to dispense food, clothing, shelter, punishment, and even death Prisoners had to request permission to use the sanitary facilities, and permission was not always forthcoming. As the inmates were not sentenced for specified periods of time, they tended to view camp life as having a limitless future.
In a relatively short time, this experience of total dependence developed characteristics of infantile behavior in those prisoners who managed to avoid the extermination chambers. A childish humor and infantile giggling were common. Boasting and lying were widely practiced. Patterns of hero worship emerged, and the guards became the heroes. The prisoners came to accept their values including their German nationalism and anti-Semitism. Some even altered their uniforms to resemble those of the guards, and they slavishly followed orders beyond necessity. Attempts at resistance were very rare, and, when the liberating American forces arrived at the end of the war, they were surprised that there was not some attempt at mass revenge.
In comparison, the African who became an American slave underwent an experience which had some marked similarities to those of the German concentration camp. He too underwent a kind of shock procurement. Although millions of men became slaves, the event was unique to each man. Usually, he had been captured in the course of warfare which, in itself, was a humiliation. After being chained together and marched to the coast, his horror must have increased when he realized that he was being sold to Europeans. It was widely believed by Africans that white men were cannibals. At the coastal station, he also had to endure the humiliation of a naked inspection by a physician. This was followed by a lengthy transoceanic trip which must have exceeded the horrors of the train ride to the concentration camp. The crowded unsanitary conditions in the slave ships were at least as bad as those in the cattle cars, and the Africans also were beaten and harassed to keep them docile.
Moreover, the trip itself was much rougher and longer. After undergoing another inspection, the African was purchased and had to face lifetime of bondage in an alien environment. He was stripped of identity, given a new name, and he was taught to envision himself and his African heritage as inferior and barbaric. The White master insisted on total obedience and created a situation of utter dependence. He supplied food, clothing, shelter, discipline, and he was in a position to control the slave's friends and mating. The "Sambo" of literature mirrored reality, this life of dependency created infantile characteristics in many of the slaves and taught them to reject their past while adopting the values of their masters. The American slave system, besides exploiting the Africans labor, possessed and violated his person.
Three schools of mass behavior have been suggested as explanations: Freudian psychology, the interpersonal theories of Henry Stack Sullivan, and role psychology. Freudian psychology has put total emphases on early childhood experiences and is the least suited for this purpose. It could be argued that the shock procurement and the total detachment from previous life which it achieved both in the concentration camps and in American slavery emptied the super-ego or conscience of its contents. Then, the creation of total dependence which followed could have resulted in infantile regression. This would account for the childlike behavior of both "Sambo" and the camp inmates. The slave master the camp guard, each in his own way, became a father figure, and the respective victims internalized the value system of this symbolic father.
The interpersonal school of psychology states that the determining factor in influencing personality development can be found in the estimation and expectation of "significant others." Those responsible for the physical and emotional security of an individual are his "significant others." For a child these are his parents. As he matures, the number of "significant others" in one's experience increases. This permits one to make decisions of one's own and to develop some individuality.
However, the child has already internalized the estimations and expectations of his parents, and this tends to shape his personality for rest of his life. Still, acquiring new "significant others" as adult can be important in reshaping the adult personality. Both the American slaves and the camp prisoners were thrust into situations in which they had a new single "significant other." This was a situation similar to that of childhood, and it could have had the same impact in shaping personality. All previous "significant others" had been made insignificant, and, in each case, the estimations and expectations of this new -'significant other" became internalized into the personality of the victims.
Role psychology holds the most promise for explaining the impact of a social situation in determining the development of individual personality. In role psychology the individual and society can be compared to the actor and the theater. Society provides the individual with a number of roles, and the individual's behavior is his performance, the way in which he plays them.
Normally, each individual plays a number of roles simultaneously. While some are pervasive and extensive in scope, others are limited and transitory, The role of man or woman is extensive, but that of customer or student is transitory. Society also endows some roles with considerable clarity, while leaving others open to individual interpretation, The roles people play and the way in which they play them determine personality. Within American slavery as well as within the German concentration camps, the number of roles available were severely limited, and both the slave master and the camp guard defined them very clearly. Both demanded a precise and careful performance. There were those whose performance was faultless in playing their roles. While the concentration camp guard guaranteed its performance through terror and torture, the slave master usually used more subtle means. Besides punishment for missed cues, masters displayed considerable fondness for slaves who played their part well. By restricting role availability and by carefully defining the performance, society could create a group personality type, and, through changing roles, society could change personality.
Although the innovative use of personality types has further illuminated the nature of the American slave system, it has tended to blur the individual experiences and contributions of millions of Africans into a vague amorphous abstraction. The technique has provided important insights into the plight of the slave as the victim of a dehumanizing system, but it tends to obscure the active participation of Africans in American life. Further, it is a crude generalization which, in fact, included many types within it. While most slaves were plantation field hands, there were many whose lives followed different lines and for whom slavery was a very different experience. Some slaves departed sharply enough from the "Sambo" image to become leaders in insurrections. These men were usually urban slaves possessing unusual talents, and thereby escaping much of the emasculation which the typical slave had to endure.
Emphasizing the slave as the victim of the slave system further reduces him to a passive object by insisting that the slave was effectively detached from his African heritage. Many scholars, including Elkins, believe that the attempt to discover Africanisms in America by researchers such as Melville J. Herskovits has led to trivial and insignificant results. This belief is reinforced by the example of the German concentration camps. There, people from wide variety of social and educational backgrounds reacted in highly similar ways. Apparently the individual had been detached from his prior life, and his reactions to the camp were shaped in standardized manner. Similarly, it is argued, the slave was stripped of his heritage, so that none of his African background could influence his life in America. His personality and behavior were shaped exclusively by the unique form of American slavery.
However, if we apply the experiences gained in the Chinese prisoner-of-war camps during the Korean War, some doubts on this point can be raised. While Americans from a wide variety of social and educational backgrounds behaved with a marked similarity to each other, thereby appearing to prove that their previous experiences were irrelevant to their reactions to the camp, there was, to the contrary, a significant difference between the behavior the American and Turkish prisoners who had both been fighting the Korean War. The morale of the American prisoners was easily broken, and each one strove to look out for himself even at expense of his comrade's life. In contrast, the Turks maintained military discipline and group solidarity. This evidence would seem indicate that, while individual differences were insignificant, cultural differences did influence adjustment to the camp situation.
There are also grounds to believe that different value systems influenced the way in which contrasting cultures adjusted to slavery. While the African made the adjustment successfully, the American Indian, when he was enslaved, did not. The African's agricultural labor had contained many similarities to the work required on the plantation, but the Indian, accustomed to a migratory hunting existence, was totally unprepared for plantation slavery. He found nothing in it to sustain his values or his will to live, and he was unable to make the adjustment.
If the African's agricultural background helped his adaptation to American slavery, then we must assume that his detachment from his heritage was not complete. Perhaps, besides influencing his life as a slave, his African background may have found its way into other aspects of American society. However, it would seem that because the African came to believe in his own inferiority, there must have been very little conscious attempt to keep his culture alive. Certainly, the recent Black Power movement, which intended to revive pride in race and in the past, bears eloquent testimony to the degree to which any conscious link with the African past had been suppressed. Nevertheless, mental and emotional habit can continue without any conscious intention, and habits of this kind are important for the formation of personality, Moreover, it is possible that the image of "Sambo" as an exasperating child may tell as much about the mentality of the white master who perpetuated the picture as it does about the slave whom it depicted. Perhaps the picture of the childlike slave is also a reverse image of the sober, patronizing white master whose life was rooted in austerity. To such a man spontaneity and exuberance might well have seemed infantile.
The life of a slave did not give him much opportunity to create artifacts which could later be catalogued as evidence of African influence. However, he did create a unique music. While Negro spirituals were not imported directly from Africa, they were more than an attempt to copy the master's music. They represent highly complex fusion of African and European music, of African and European religion, and of African and European emotion. Blues and jazz, which emerged at a later date, represent a similar creative tension. They clearly evolve from the experience of the African in America and include in them elements which can be traced directly to Africa. Jazz is now viewed throughout the world as American music. It demonstrates the fact that the African immigrant was not totally detached from his heritage and that he has made significant contributions to American culture. While American slavery did violate the person of the slave, some Africans, in the face of it all, managed to maintain some sense of individuality and manhood.
Undoubtedly, the slave's most common response to his condition was one of submission. There was no hope of his returning to Africa, and there was no realistic expectation that the situation would be significantly altered. The hopelessness of his plight created a deep sense of apathy. However, even this acceptance of his master's values may have reflected African influences. It was common for a defeated tribe in West Africa to adopt the gods of its victors within the framework of its own religion. This attitude would have facilitated the African's adjustment to slavery in an alien culture.
The majority of slaves worked in the fields on large plantations. The majority of them were herded into large work gangs, supervised by overseers, and carefully directed in the accomplishment of whatever task was necessary for that day. Others were regularly assigned to a specific task without constant supervision and were held responsible for its completion. In this way it was possible for them to develop some sense of initiative. House slave were usually better off than field hands, but, because they lived in such proximity to their masters, they were much quicker to adopt the master's values and tended to be more obsequious.
Another significant group of slaves, both on the plantation and in the city, developed their talents and became skilled craftsmen: barbers, blacksmiths, carpenters, and a wide variety of other trades. Masters who could not fully utilize the skills of such a craftsman rented their property to their neighbors. In some cases, master permitted the slave to be responsible for hiring himself out and allowed him to keep some of the profits. The variety of experiences permitted within slavery allowed significant variations in the types of slaves who emerged.
Even apparently submissive slaves developed techniques of passive resistance. The laziness, stealing, lying, and faked illnesses, which were usually attributed to the slave's childlike behavior, may have been deliberate ways of opposing the system. Masters complained that many of their slaves were chronic shirkers. When slaves dragged their feet while working, it was seen as evidence of their inferiority. When white union workers behave similarly, it is labeled a slowdown.
Other slaves appear to have indulged in deliberate mischief, trampling down crops, breaking tools, and abusing livestock. A southern physician, Dr. Cartwright, concluded that this behavior was symptomatic of a mental disease peculiar to Africans. He labeled the disease Dysaethesia Aethiopica and insisted that masters were wrong in thinking that it was merely rascality. He also concluded that the slave's chronic tendency to run away was in reality the symptom of yet another African disease, Drapetomania, which he believed would eventually be medically cured.
Finally, some slaves engaged in active resistance. Most of the slave insurrections in America were very small, and most were unsuccessful. The three best known insurrections were those led by Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, and Nat Turner. These revolts will be treated more fully in the next chapter.
The masters consistently refused to see examples of passive or active resistance as signs of manhood. Lying and stealing were never interpreted as passive resistance, but were always attributed to an inferior savage heritage, as was slave violence. Prosser, Vesey, and Turner, instead of being numbered among the world's heroes fighting for the freedom of their people, were usually represented as something closer to savages, criminals, or psychopaths. Modern historical scholarship has been influenced by the interpretation of slave behavior, which stressed the impact of the system on the slave, rather than his response to it. Consequently, it has failed to give proper recognition to African contributions to American life.