Slavery, Historical

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What are some key points and common themes of Stanley Elkins’ Slavery (1959) and John Blassingame’s The Slave Community (1972)?

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These two works represent an important, but now largely settled, debate in the historiography of slavery. They have almost no common themes, except that they are both interested in how slavery affected the slaves themselves.

In his 1959 book Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life, Elkins argued that slavery was so brutal and demeaning that it made slaves docile, obedient, and in a childlike state of psychological development. This argument, often called the "Sambo thesis," did not reflect a personal prejudice on Elkins' part toward African-Americans, but rather the influence of the work of psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, who had recently published his work on the dehumanizing effects of life in Nazi concentration camps. It should also be noted that Elkins, unlike U.B. Phillips, who had written some of the first professional histories of slavery early in the twentieth century, did not claim that African-Americans were innately inferior. Rather he argued that the brutality of the slave system crushed their humanity. Elkins' language was startling, however, and assumed that slaves had no agency whatsoever in their relationships with masters. They were spiritually and psychologically powerless. 

Blassingame, an African-American historian, took issue with Elkins' claims, arguing in his 1972 book Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South that slaves had in fact developed a very rich culture that included an emphasis on the family, an institution Elkins underplayed in his book. Moreover, Blassingame claimed that slaves had been able to hold onto many elements of their African origins, which they combined with Christianity to create a new, vibrant culture under terrible circumstances.

Both Elkins and Blassingame have been criticized for their assumptions and their use of sources, but they also marked the beginning of cultural studies of slavery, books which emphasized culture as a form of resistance and focused on slaves' ability to control some aspects of their own lives. This debate, also heavily informed by the new social history, continues, but it is generally accepted that slaves were not docile, ignorant "Sambos," but people who made the most out of their situations.

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