Slavery and Social Death Critical Context - Essay

Orlando Patterson

Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Patterson’s studies have sparked controversy because he finds in slavery not an aberration from the Western ideal of freedom but a necessary condition of the notion of freedom itself. This is a theme taken up again in his National Book Award-winning Freedom, Volume 1: Freedom in the Making of Western Culture (1991). For many readers, Patterson’s argument is made all the more difficult because it is hard to acknowledge freedom as a peculiarly Western value. That is, freedom is not inherent, as many Westerners like to believe. Freedom, for Patterson, is a noble sentiment with a less-noble progenitor. The reader is forced to grapple with the interdependence of good and evil.

Concerns of the book reflect Patterson’s background as a native of Jamaica who received his early education in the West Indies. In addition, his comparative approach reflects his further training at the London School of Economics as well as his anthropological sophistication. His methods and presentation, however, reflect his training as a sociologist; in reading this book, one must keep in mind that Patterson is neither a philosopher nor a historian.

Slavery and Social Death offers a single coherent theory that challenges deeply rooted assumptions in Western culture. It provides new points of departure for future research, and it speaks to contemporary social issues in Europe, the Caribbean, and the United States. The book raises fundamental issues concerning human psychology and the potentials of social organization. The author is to be commended for his skillful use of the past to explicate the present. He has provided a new and creative synthesis that forces readers to see both past and present from a new and often radically different perspective.