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  • Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves
  • Patrick G. Wheaton
Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves. By Ira Berlin. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003; pp x + 374. $16.95 paper.

Ira Berlin's new book examines the nature and effects of North American slavery on persons of color. Not simply a history of slavery, Generations of Captivity is "the story of the making and remaking of slavery" with an emphasis on the slave (4). Berlin laments that, too often and for too long, scholars have treated slaves as standing outside history, having no definitive role in the world in which they lived. In contrast, Berlin contends that slaves and free persons of color were not socially and politically inert; rather, their history "was made not only by what was done to them but also by what they did for themselves" (4).

Berlin integrates a vast array of primary sources with recent monographs and scholarly articles to update and extend his earlier work, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (1998). Berlin divides this revised study chronologically and geographically. The four main chapters each investigate a "generation" of persons of color. The examination of each generation begins with the geographic region that most typifies that generation and continues by noting the differences of each region within that generation. Berlin's analysis reveals that contrary to the dominant thesis of North American slavery as uniform and continuous, slavery was complex and diverse, heterogeneous. The amount and nature of freedom, the level of autonomy, the position and status of families, the religious practices, and the options for manumission ebbed and flowed from generation to generation and from region to region. Although slavery was "originally imposed and maintained by violence," Berlin maintains that slaveowners and slaves continually "negotiated and then renegotiated" the terms and meanings of slavery (4–5).

Berlin's history of slaves and free persons of color begins with the "Charter Generations" arrival in North America alongside European settlers. [End Page 513] Although enslaved, Berlin notes that this first generation of persons of color "established families, professed Christianity . . . traveled widely . . . participated in the exchange economies of the pioneer settlements and accumulated property. . . . and some attained modest privilege and authority" (53). They had access to the law and, in some geographic regions, nearly one-fifth secured freedom. However, the emergence of large-scale commodity production threatened this early freedom and prosperity. The growth of the plantation transformed North American societies into slave societies and gave rise to the "Plantation Generations." In the early years of the eighteenth century, the explosion of the importation of slaves from the African interior and the escalation of raw, violent power to sustain the plantation social order eroded "the touchstones of the charter generations" (60). Despite the destruction of the life their ancestors had known, Berlin argues, African slaves "contested the new regime at every turn," challenging the planters and forcing negotiations over the nature of work and rights (64). The lives of the third generation of slaves, the "Revolutionary Generations," turned back toward that of the "Charter Generations" as the turmoil of war and the invocation of universal equality "strengthened the slaves' hand" (100). In the Upper and Coastal South, slaves reentered the marketplace selling handcrafted items and produce from their own gardens, reembraced Christianity, and encountered renewed opportunities for emancipation. During the twilight of the eighteenth century, the entitlements gained faded "as the Age of Revolution receded" and "the plantation revolution roared ahead" (157). Berlin proposes that the central event in the lives of African Americans between the American Revolution and the demise of slavery in 1865 was the "Second Middle Passage" that "fueled a series of plantation revolutions . . . created new, powerful slave societies" and "remade black life" (162). The "Migration Generations" of the early nineteenth century experienced anew the savage violence and demeaning cruelties known to the "Plantation Generations," as cotton and sugar plantations grew westward across the southern interior. Despite the planters' reclamation and possible extension of the authority they wielded over the "Plantation Generations," the "Migration Generations" "surrendered nothing easily. Instead they too made new demands, continuing...