American Slavery

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Kolchin has done a masterly job of synthesizing the vast amount of research published on slavery during the last few decades into a balanced overview that will probably become the standard introduction to the subject. Although Kolchin focuses on American slavery, he also makes some illuminating comparisons with slavery as it existed in the Caribbean, in Brazil, and in Russian serfdom. Particularly impressive is the insight Kolchin gives into the changing way historians have viewed American slavery. Navigating his way through controversies skillfully, he reaches fair-minded conclusions, free of ideological bias. For example, one contentious topic has been the extent to which slaves retained their African heritage, as opposed to quickly adopting American culture. Kolchin argues that this is a misleading way of putting the question: there were influences from both sides, and slaves succeeded in creating a culture that was uniquely African American. Kolchin also explains another swing of the scholarly pendulum: mid-century historians tended to see slaves as victims, totally under the control of their owners, but historians of the 1970’s and 1980’s have argued that the slave community formed its own autonomous culture, largely free of white influence. According to Kolchin, this overstates the case. He points to the inherent insecurity of slave life (family structures were not stable, for example, and most slaves at some point in their lives were sold, or went through the trauma of having a family member sold). Kolchin concludes that although slaves resisted being turned into docile creatures always willing to do their masters’ bidding, the concept of the slave community as a bastion of psychological freedom and human dignity is well wide of the mark.

A notable feature of the book is Kolchin’s 43-page bibliographical essay, which is an invaluable guide to the more specialized literature on slavery.