- My Brother Slaves: Friendship, Masculinity, and Resistance in the Antebellum South by Sergio A. Lussana
My Brother Slaves fills a long-standing void in the history of slavery. For decades after slavery became a popular topic of inquiry for US historians in the 1950s and 1960s, the monographs that emerged almost exclusively addressed the experience of enslaved men, even while they purported to describe the lives of slaves more generally. Then in 1985, Deborah Gray White called attention to the neglect of women in the history of slavery with her now-classic Ar'n't I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South. In the three decades since the publication of White's book, numerous other studies focused on enslaved women have been produced. Yet sixty years of work on slavery in the United States has heretofore yielded no books that consciously treat the subject of what it meant to be male and enslaved.
As White, Stephanie Camp, Kenneth Greenberg, and others have demonstrated, looking at slavery through the lens of gender can markedly change our view of the lived experience of enslaved people. My Brother Slaves paints a picture of a slave society highly segregated by sex, in which particular notions of masculinity enabled male slaves to build a unified community that facilitated bold and effective resistance against slavery. In exploring male slaves' conceptions of masculinity, My Brother Slaves moves beyond previous arguments that tied the manhood of enslaved men strictly to the role of provider for and protector of their families. Lussana argues that enslaved men measured masculinity at least as frequently through their interactions with one another as they did in their relationships with their families. Following White's overall point about the importance of single-sex relationships for female slaves, Lussana posits that bonds with each other were likely the most significant relationships in the lives of enslaved men. In Lussana's words, "Homosocial company was integral to the gendered identity and self-esteem of enslaved men" (18).
Whether laboring in coal mines, engaging in wrestling matches, or evading slave patrols, male slaves proved their manliness to themselves and each other through displays of strength, daring, and control over their bodies. This observation in itself is not particularly new; Kenneth Greenberg's Honor and Slavery made a similar argument in 1997. But Lussana does not simply identify these qualities as superficial traits that helped individual male slaves feel good about themselves. Instead, he goes further, connecting them to the larger purpose of building, protecting, strengthening, and expanding the slave community. When enslaved men evaded patrollers in order to steal food from neighboring plantations, for example, they highlighted their own manly traits, like bravery or mental prowess, and they fulfilled the manly role of providing for their families. But Lussana argues that they also often "distributed the spoils of their thefts to the community at large" and thereby "cemented social solidarity in slave communities" (90).
My Brother Slaves covers all aspects of life in which enslaved men acted within exclusively male spaces. The first four chapters examine work, leisure, movement beyond plantation boundaries, and friendship. In the last chapter, Lussana takes his theme to its most revolutionary conclusion, discussing how [End Page 631] encounters between male slaves from different plantations through work or leisure activities enabled them to build far-reaching networks of communication that facilitated more radical forms of resistance. Subversive news and geographic knowledge were thereby disseminated across larger areas, making it possible for slaves to run away or plan revolts.
My Brother Slaves is occasionally repetitive, particularly in the early chapters, reminding the reader that the book followed from Lussana's dissertation. Although there is much original research and analysis, at points the book reads like a synthesis of existing literature. The chapter devoted to leisure time, for instance, echoes Kenneth Greenberg's argument in Honor and Slavery that male slaves wrestled as a means of "reclaiming their bodies from the exigencies of slavery" (17). Stephanie Camp made a similar assertion about enslaved...