10 White Images of Black Slaves (Is What We See in Others Sometimes a Reflection of What We Find in Ourselves?)
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10 White Images of Black Slaves (Is What We See in Others Sometimes a Reflection of What We Find in Ourselves?) GEORGE FREDRICKSON In his provocative study of American slavery, Stanley Elkins provides a vivid description of the black slave as he was usually represented in antebellum southern lore: Sambo, the typical plantation slave, was docile but irresponsible, loyal but lazy, humble but chronically given to lying and stealing; his behavior was full of infantile silliness and his talk inflated with childish exaggeration. His relationship with his master was one of utter dependence and childlike attachment: it was indeed this childlike quality that was the very key to his being. Although the merest hint of Sambo's "manhood" might fill the Southern breast with scorn "the child in his place" could be both exasperating and loveable] No one has seriously denied that this image existed. But Elkins provoked a massive controversy , first by arguing that such a conception of the slave personality was a uniquely North American phenomenon-that Sambo would have been inconceivable in other New World slave societies-and second by advancing the bold hypothesis that Sambo was not a "mere stereotype" but an image that accurately reflected a dominant personality type among southern slaves. To sustain the second proposition, Elkins introduced his provocative concentration camp analogy to demonstrate the possibility of adult infantilization in "closed systems" where inmates or slaves were subjected to the absolute authority of guards or masters.2 Criticism of the Elkins thesis has proceeded along several lines, but it has been, primarily , devoted to establishing that Sambo was in fact a U mere stereotype," that actual slave behavior and psychology did not conform to the image. Some of this criticism was beside the point; for Elkins did not argue, as some of his critics seemed to suggest, that all slaves were Sambos, only that the Sambo type was a frequent and logical outcome of the plantation regime. Some of this criticism was patently ideological and ahistorical: since Sambo could not be a source of pride to blacks in the 1960s, he could not have existed in the 1850s. But the controversy helped provoke an intensive examination of plantation society, patterns of slave behavior, and black self-images as revealed in the narratives and autobiograFrom THE ARROGANCE Of RACE, pp. 206-15. Copyright © 1988 by Wesleyan University Press. Reprinted by permission . Copyrighted Material White Images of Black Slaves 39 phies of exslaves.3 The result of all this scholarship has been to suggest that there were real Sambos, but that they constituted a distinct minority among a variety of plantation types. As alternatives to Sambo, John Blassingame discovered "Jack" and "Nat." "Jack" he writes, "worked faithfully as long as he was well treated. Sometimes sullen and uncooperative , he generally refused to be driven beyond the place he set for himself... , Although often proud, stubborn, and conscious of the wrongs he suffered, Jack tried to repress his anger. His patience was, however, not unlimited."4 "Nat," of course, was Nat Turner, the out-and-out rebel and source of recurring fears among whites that their slaves might rise up at any time and cut their throats. Other historians have suggested that slaves, like inmates of some modern "total institutions," were adept at role playing and could shift from one pattern of behavior to another depending on which strategy would yield the greatest personal satisfaction.s All the interpretations that stress the variability of the slave personality are premised on a conception of the plantation that would make it sufficiently unlike a concentration camp to provide the slaves with considerable room to maneuver, to develop their own cultural standards and sense of justice, and hence to assert themselves in various ways incompatible with the Sambo image.6 The image is, after all, a "mere stereotype," based like most stereotypes on a kernel of truth but, in its totality and coerciveness, a distortion of reality. But stereotypes themselves are important historical phenomena. If they tell us little that is reliable about the objects of such conceptions, they may reveal a great deal about those who hold them. And they can be used for comparative study. If different slave societies did indeed project differing public conceptions of the nature and character of their slaves, this might tell us something about the varying ways that social, cultural, or ideological circumstances could shape what Eugene Genovese calls "the world the slaveholders made."7 It has also been argued that Sambo...