Discuss whether Elkins’ assessments were correct:  were enslaved blacks merely dumb brute laborers without distinct cultures of their own?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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First of all, it is important that we should not see Elkins as a racist who was trying to argue that blacks were unable to create a culture of their own.  Elkins, writing soon after World War II, was comparing slaves to Holocaust victims.  He was arguing that the system of slavery was so brutal that it, like the Nazi concentration camps, infantilized its victims.  His argument is that slavery was a horrible system, not that blacks were inherently incapable of creating their own culture.

That said, I still do not believe that Elkins was correct.  I am more likely to agree with the arguments made by later scholars such as Herbert Gutman and Eugene Genovese.  These later scholars argued that the slaves were very resilient and that they were able to resist the slave system enough to carve out a significant social space for themselves.  I would argue that there were many ways in which the slaves were able to create their own culture.

One of these ways was through creating families.  It is true that slave families were sometimes broken up when slaves were sold.  However, the fact that slaves created families shows that they were resisting the efforts of the whites to break them.  Moreover, as Gutman shows, the freed slaves formed and maintained families that were as strong as white families.  This shows that the slaves were able to create family structures even though the whites refused to allow slave families any sort of legal protection.

A second aspect of slave culture was religion.  It is true that slaveowners tried to use religion to subjugate the slaves and to make them be content with their lot in life.  However, it is also true that the slaves appropriated those aspects of Christian religion that suited them and used those aspects as a way to resist the idea that slavery was a normal way of life.  The figure of Moses and the idea of deliverance, for example, formed very important aspects of slave religion and demonstrate that they were creating their own culture.

Finally, we can look at aspects of culture such as music and food.  Here, too, the slaves made their own culture.  They did not simply give in and become what the whites wanted them to become.  Instead, they created their own forms of music and they influenced Southern cooking very strongly.  This, too, shows that the slaves were creating their own culture rather than simply being infantilized by the whites.

Thus, while I feel it is important not to imply that Elkins’ argument is a racist one, I do not agree that slaves lacked a distinct culture of their own.  

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