Excerpts from Roll Jordan Role: The World the Slaves Made, Eugene D. Genovese, Vintage Books, 1972

The question of nationality-- of "identity" has stalked Afro-American history from its colonial beginnings, when the expression "a nation within a nation" was already being heard. In recent decades it has reemerged fiercely in political debates, and it is destined to remain with us, however triumphant "integrationist" or "separatist" tendencies appear at a given moment. Some historians, black and white, interpret the Afro-American experience as a separate national experience; others, black and white, interpret it as a more or less ethnically distinct component of a single regional or national experience. The closer one looks at the quarrel, the clearer it becomes that no such formula can account for so rich and contradictory an experience.

In this book I refer to the "black nation" and argue that the slaves, as an objective social class, laid the foundations for separate black national culture while enormously enriching American culture as a whole. But the separate black national culture has always been American, however much it has drawn on African origins or reflected the distinct development of black people in America. White and black Southerners, however different they may claim to be and in some ways are, have come to form one people in vital respects. As C. Van Woodward observes, in American Counterpoint:

The ironic thing about these two great hyphenate minorities, Southern-Americans and Afro-Americans, confronting each other on their native soil for three and a half centuries, is the degree to which they shaped each other's destiny, determined each other's isolation, shared and molded a common culture. It is, in fact, impossible to imagine one without the other and quite futile to try.

Originally, I had planned to explore the theme of nationality throughout the book and to examine its political implications in an epilogue. I have decided, however, to leave the matter for a later date and a more appropriate format. My reading of the evidence as constituting a national thrust-- in its objective significance more than as a conscious effort by the slaves-- may there appear as an obiter dictum. Yet I trust that every reader is capable of recasting certain formulations in useful alternative terms. I hope I have shown the slaves made an indispensable contribution to the development of black culture and black national consciousness as well as to American nationality as a whole. But, knowing that the ambiguity of the black experience as a national question lends the evidence to different readings, I have chosen to stay close to my primary responsibility: to tell the story of slave life as carefully and accurately as possible. Many years of studying the astonishing effort of black people to live decently as human beings even in slavery has convinced me that no theoretical advance suggested in their experience could ever deserve as much attention as that demanded by their demonstration of the beauty and power of the human spirit under conditions of extreme oppression.

The reception accorded by white America to the black people brought here in chains and raised in slavery and under racist oppression has, first and foremost, provided, a record of one of history's greatest crimes. I have tried to tell the story not so much of the crime itself, although I hope I have not slighted it, as of the black struggle to survive spiritually as well as physically-- to make a livable world for themselves and their children within the narrowest living space and harshest adversity. And if I have tried to present the slaveholders not as monsters but as human beings with solid virtues of their own, my intention has hardly been to spare them condemnation for their crimes. They commanded and profited from an evil social system; whatever the extenuating circumstances, qualifications, and complexities, they remained in the end responsible for what they wrought. But I have also tried to show that, for a complex of reasons of self-interest, common humanity, and Christian sensibility, they could not help contributing to their slaves' creative survival; that many slaveholders even took some pride in their slaves' accomplishment; and that they imbibed much of their slaves' culture and sensibility while imparting to their slaves much of their own.

Slavery, especially in its plantation setting and in its paternalistic aspect, made white and black southerners one people while masking them as two. As in a lasting although not necessarily happy marriage, two discrete individuals shared, for better of worse, one life. I must therefore ask readers to be patient with Book One, Part I, and with some other sections of this volume that treat the masters and other white people much more fully than the slaves and that move abruptly from one general aspect of life to another (for example, from descriptions of social relations to analyses of law and ideology). An understanding of the slaves requires some understanding of the masters and of others who helped shape a complex slave society. Masters and slaves shaped each other and cannot be discussed or analyzed in isolation.

Some of the language in this book may disturb readers; it disturbs me. Whenever "nigger" appears in the sources, it has been retained; moreover, I have used it myself when it seemed the best way to capture the spirit of a contemporary situation. The word is offensive, but I believe that its omission would only anesthetize subject matter infinitely more offensive. In Book Three, Part I-- in the section entitled "The Language of Class and Nation"-- I have discussed the use of the word by black people themselves.

As for the dialect used in quotations, I have transcribed it the sources. In many cases whites took down black comments and rendered them as they thought proper. I have not tampered with these sources and assume every reader can judge for himself or herself the probable accuracy of the rendering.

I have used "black" and "Afro-American" in preference to "Negro" out of respect for what I perceive to be the present preference of the majority of the black community. I have, however, used "free Negro" because it was the most common contemporary term and also because it more accurately captures the color duality of that group as black and mulatto. When discussing the Caribbean, I have followed regional procedure and used "colored" to refer to those who were part white.

So many errors of spelling and grammar appear in the contemporary sources that I have omitted [sic] except in a few cases when it seemed necessary. All words in italics have been transcribed from texts and the indicate the original author's emphasis.


Cruel, unjust, exploitative, oppressive, slavery bound two peoples together in bitter antagonism while creating an organic relationship so complex and ambivalent that neither could express the simplest human feelings without reference to the other. Slavery rested on the principle of property in man-- of one man's appropriation of another's person as well as of the fruits of his labor. By definition and in essence it was a system of class rule, in which some people lived off the labor of others. American slavery subordinated one race to another and thereby rendered its fundamental class relationships more complex and ambiguous: but they remained class relationships. The racism that developed from racial subordination influenced every aspect of American life and remains powerful. But slavery as a system of class rule predated racism and racial subordination in world history and once existed without them. Racial subordination, as postbellum American developments and the history of modern colonialism demonstrate, need not rest on slavery. Wherever racial subordination exists, racism exists; therefore, southern slave society and its racist ideology had much in common with other systems and societies. But southern slave society was not merely one more manifestation of some abstraction called racist society. Its history was essentially determined by particular relationships of class power in racial form.

The Old South, black and white, created a historically unique kind of paternalist society. To insist upon the centrality of class relations as manifested in paternalism is not to slight the inherent racism or to deny the intolerable contradictions at the heart of paternalism itself. Imamu Amiri Baraka captures the tragic irony of paternalist social relations when he writes that slavery "was, most of all, a paternal institution" and yet refers to "the filthy paternalism and cruelty of slavery."(1) Southern paternalism, like every other paternalism, had little to do with Ole Massa's ostensible benevolence, kindness, and good cheer. It grew out of the necessity to discipline and morally justify a system of exploitation. It did encourage kindness and affection, but it simultaneously encouraged cruelty and hatred. The racial distinction between master and slave heightened the tension inherent in an unjust social order.

Southern slave society grew out of the same general historical conditions that produced other slave regimes of the modern world. The rise of a world market-- the development of new tastes and manufactures dependent upon non-European sources of raw materials-- encouraged the rationalization of colonial agriculture under the ferocious domination of a few Europeans. African labor provided the human power to fuel the new system of production in all the New World slave societies, which, however, had roots in different European experiences and emerged in different geographical, economic, and cultural conditions. The had much in common, but each was unique.(2)

Theoretically, modern slavery rested, as had ancient slavery, on the idea of a slave as an instrumentum vocale-- a chattel, a possession, a thing, a mere extension of his master's will. But the vacuousness of such pretensions had been exposed long before the growth of New World societies.(3) The closing of the ancient slave trade, the political crisis of ancient civilization, and the subtle moral pressure of an ascendant Christianity had converged in the early centuries of the new era to shape a seigniorial world in which lords and serfs (not slaves) faced each other with reciprocal demands and expectations. This land-oriented world of medieval Europe slowly forged the traditional paternalist ideology to which the southern slave fell heir.

The slaveholders of the South, unlike those of the Caribbean, increasingly resided on their plantations and by the end of the eighteenth century had become an entrenched regional ruling class. The paternalism encouraged by the close living of masters and slaves was enormously reinforced by the closing of the African slave trade, which compelled masters to pay greater attention to the reproduction of their labor force. Of all the slave societies in the New World, that of the Old South alone maintained a slave force that reproduced itself. Less than 400,000 imported Africans had, by 1860, become an American black population of more than 4,000,000.(4)

A paternalism accepted by both masters and slaves-- but with radically different interpretations-- afforded a fragile bridge across the intolerable contradictions inherent in a society based on racism, slavery, and class exploitation that had to depend on the willing reproduction of and productivity of its victims. For the slaveholders, paternalism represented an attempt to overcome the fundamental contradiction in slavery: the impossibility of the slaves' ever becoming the things they were supposed to be. Paternalism defined the involuntary labor of slaves as a legitimate return to their masters for protection and direction. But, the masters' need to see their slaves as acquiescent human beings constituted a moral victory for the slaves themselves. Paternalism's insistence upon mutual obligations-- duties, responsibilities, and ultimately even rights-- implicitly recognized the slaves' humanity.

Wherever paternalism exists, it undermines solidarity among the oppressed by linking them as individuals to their oppressors.(5) A lord (master, padrone, patron, padron, patrao) functions as a direct provider and protector to each individual or family, as well as to the community as a whole. The slaves of the Old South displayed impressive solidarity and collective resistance to their masters, but in a web of paternalistic relationships their action tended to become defensive and to aim at protecting the individuals against aggression and abuse; it could not readily pass into an effective weapon for liberation. Black leaders, especially the preachers, won loyalty and respect and fought heroically to defend their people. But despite their will and considerable ability, they could not lead their people over to the attack against the paternalist ideology itself.

In the Old South the tendencies inherent in all paternalistic class systems intersected with and acquired enormous reinforcement from the tendencies inherent in an analytically distinct system of racial subordination. The two appeared to be a single system. Paternalism created a tendency for the slaves to identity with a particular community through identification with its master; it reduced their possibilities for identification with each other as a class. Racism undermined the slaves' sense of worth as black people and reinforced their dependence on white masters. But these were tendencies, not absolute laws, and the slaves forged weapons of defense, the most important of which was a religion that taught them to love and value each other, to take a critical view of their master, and to reject the ideological rationales for their own enslavement.

The slaveholder had to establish a stable regime with which there slaves could live. Slaves remained slaves. They could be bought and sold like any other property and were subject to despotic personal power. And blacks remained rigidly subordinated to whites. But masters and slaves, whites and blacks, lived as well as worked together. The existence of the community required that all find some measure of self-interest and self-respect. Southern paternalism developed as a way of mediating irreconcilable class and racial conflicts; it was an anomaly even at the moment of its greatest apparent strength. But, for about a century, it protected both masters and slaves from the worst tendencies inherent in their respective conditions. It mediated, however unfairly and even cruelly, between masters and slaves, and it disguised, however imperfectly, the appropriation of one man's labor power by another. Paternalism in any historical setting defines relations of superordination and subordination. Its strength as a prevailing ethos increases as members of the community accept-- or feel compelled accept-- these relations as legitimate. Brutality lies inherent in this acceptance of patronage and dependence, no matter how organic the paternalistic order. But southern paternalism necessarily recognized the slaves' humanity-- not only their free will but the very talent and ability without which their acceptance of a doctrine of reciprocal obligations would made no sense. Thus, the slaves by accepting a paternalistic ethos and legitimizing class rule, developed their most powerful defense against the dehumanization implicit in slavery. Southern paternalism may have reinforced racism as well as class exploitation, but it also unwittingly invited its victims to fashion their own interpretation of the social order it was intended to justify. And the slaves, drawing on a religion that was supposed to assure their compliance and docility, rejected the essence of slavery by projecting their rights and value as human beings.