- Strategies for Survival: Recollections of Bondage in Antebellum Virginia
Historians of slavery since Kenneth Stampp have been involved in a tug-of-war over the nature of the institution, with one side pulling for the [End Page 505] individual agency of enslaved peoples and the other side emphasizing the overwhelming oppression of slavery. In the middle, watching over this very physical struggle, stand those historians who remind us that agency and oppression are two sides of the same coin. William Dusinberre joins these centrists with Strategies for Survival, a compelling reexamination of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Virginia interviews that clears the path for a détente. Through sections on "Alleviations," "Offenses," and "Responses," Dusinberre narrates the experiences of the enslaved with the reasoned voice of a practiced pacifist. Acknowledging both the horrors and the mitigations of slavery, recognizing degrees of suffering and degrees of resistance, Dusinberre avoids the pitfalls of his more dogmatic colleagues and presents a nuanced portrait of slavery in antebellum Virginia. At the center of Dusinberre's argument are his sources; by concentrating on those WPA interviews that were conducted by African American interviewers in the 1930s, a situation that was unique to Virginia, Dusinberre hopes to move beyond the biases, silences, and elisions that undoubtedly colored the interactions between former slaves and white interviewers in the rest of the South.
Dusinberre begins on a provocative note, describing those conditions that might have eased the burden of slavery for some Africans and African Americans. Here we find slaves who valued their "good" masters and mistresses: white men and women who, despite being slaveowners, upheld some system of justice by teaching their slaves to read, refusing to use the whip, or simply using the whip only when it seemed "deserved." The concept of a "good" slaveowner may initially be hard for readers to swallow, but Dusinberre is right to remind us that slaves experienced bondage in innumerable ways, and that to have a master who was "'good,' or 'purty good,' or 'not mean'" could substantively affect one's quality of life (27). Dusinberre argues that mixed-race slaves who comprised Virginia's "third caste" could also enjoy certain benefits, though by using Harriet Jacobs as his chief example of a "privileged" light-skinned slave he glosses over the link between her physical appearance and her persecution. While mixed-race slaves may have found ways to use their parentage to their advantage, the psychological cost of the sexual abuse to which many fell prey cannot be underestimated. Finally, Dusinberre places urban slaves in the ranks of the slightly-better-off, citing their relative freedom of movement and greater likelihood of earning their own liberty.
Despite certain small alleviations, the majority of slaves lived in worlds [End Page 506] of violence; for the remainder of the book, Dusinberre outlines the key abuses to slaves' bodies and souls—from familial separation and physical abuse to the psychological effects of "regimentation" and "contempt"—along with the many attempts slaves made to resist. Resistance, for Dusinberre, encompasses acts of verbal protest, deception, and theft as well as the development of families, communities, and even individual talents. Dusinberre's richest chapter delves into religion as a mode of resistance, especially the ways in which Christianity offered enslaved peoples a route to freedom, education, justice, dissidence, and hope. While his examination of Afro–Christianity incorporates a wide range of practices and responses, he believes that this religion's "greatest gift … to the slaves" was that it "fostered in some of them … a spirit of forgiveness," which seems to undermine some of Christianity's more radical promises (136). One of his most intriguing hypotheses here is that nonviolent forms of resistance had a greater long-term rate of success, and that violence generally failed to bring about substantial improvements to slaves' lives. Though he cites Nat Turner's rebellion as an example of violent dissidence that further restricted slaves' few freedoms, Dusinberre does not provide comparable evidence to support his theory that nonviolent resistance was one...