Slave against Slave: Plantation Violence in the Old South by Jeff Forret (review)
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Slave against Slave: Plantation Violence in the Old South. By Jeff Forret. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2015. Pp. xii, 530. $65.00. cloth)

In his second monograph, Jeff Forret analyzes instances of violence between slaves, primarily on plantations, in the American South from the 1790s to the 1860s, making a compelling case that violence—in a variety of forms and encounters—was both destructive and constructive within southern slave neighborhoods. Slave against Slave presents an amazing collection of qualitative and quantitative data on conflicts between bondspeople and argues that violence “afforded slaves an avenue through which to uphold cultural expectations, police themselves internally without interference from whites, and impose a moral and ethical code of their own creation” (p. 25). More [End Page 94] important, Forret’s research problematizes prevalent assumptions about slave community cohesion and the “celebratory tone” of slave agency that has dominated scholarship since John Blassingame’s The Slave Community was published in 1972. While Forret acknowledges that interracial violence was likely more common in the antebellum South (with slaves as both perpetrators and victims) than between the enslaved, he nonetheless points out that violent encounters between slaves have received scant scholarly attention. He believes this inattention “is not only misleading historically but also wrongly elevates all slaves to virtual sainthood” (p. 7). His research places the context of slave violence within a “violent” southern slaveholding culture, which provides a fascinating lens on the complexities of slave agency as well as nineteenth-century society more generally.

Such a project would be a daunting task for any scholar, and the author readily admits the limitations inherent in the primary record; cases of aggression between slaves were likely to go unrecorded, particularly when masters did not face a loss of property or liability. The book also relies heavily on the Works Progress Administration (WPA) slave narratives in certain instances, which, as the author notes, can lead to contradictions and distortions. However, Forret makes up for these limitations by presenting an amazing array of documents and demonstrating a meticulous reading of his sources. County and state court transcripts, state auditors’ records, plantation journals and correspondence, ex-slave testimonies, and even church records contain many examples of violent encounters between slaves. The early chapters of the book quantify cases of slave violence considering a number of variables—including physical size, age, region, occupation and skills, choice of weapons, and even the time of the week or year that incidents occurred—to present some fascinating correlations and trends.

The role of southern evangelical churches, particularly Baptist congregations, in monitoring and policing slave violence (especially when it was associated with drinking or gambling) is particularly intriguing. Some southern churches had a significant number of enslaved [End Page 95] congregants and even “colored committees” to lead disciplinary proceedings against black members; for slave women who were sexually assaulted, the church might have been the only institution that could offer any kind of protection or recourse. The author’s major focus is not on the circumstances of slave violence but on the motivations for such encounters, which often involved dishonesty, disputes over property, threats to family or romantic ties, and, most important, “gendered performances of honor” (p. 36). Men and women fought and abused one another in a variety of ways, for a variety of reasons, and the author makes a compelling case that violence was important for the construction of both masculine and feminine identities. The author concludes with an epilogue about the modern discourses of “black” violence and the historical fallacies or “metaphorical ghosts” that have shaped those discourses (p. 385).

Overall, the book is a fascinating read, and Forret’s exhaustive attention to detail is truly staggering, but he writes in an eloquent and effective style that maintains a very clear focus on his key narrative arguments. Moreover, he emphasizes aspects of slave life and culture that are often overlooked, including examples of property ownership and the slave “internal economy,” continuities between work and leisure activities, competition, disloyalty, sexual double standards, and domestic violence. For its complex, “deromanticized” depiction of lives and relationships in bondage, Slave against Slave is a very important addition to...