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Research

Hierarchies among male slaves in the antebellum South


Introduction:

Theorising Masculinity

'You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.'

Chapter 1:

‘I never seen such a worker as my father’: Work and Masculine Responsibility

Chapter 2:

'My daddy was much of a man, yessir': Sex and Masculinity among the Enslaved

Chapter 3:

‘A SLAVE CAN'T BE A MAN!’: Resistant Manhood

‘The best amongst them was picked for that job’: Resisting the resistors

Chapter 4:

'The best man whipped and the other took it': Male violence in slave communities

Conclusion

Navigating a path to manhood: conflict and comparison on the road

 

Early Map of U.S.A

 

Map of Texas

Source - The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History

 

Source Base

I remain committed to exploring the lives of slaves as much as possible through their own words and performances. This is not to say that white testimony is excluded; indeed, it is important not to base work on the Slave South solely on enslaved testimony. Although mediated through an outsider’s lens, plantation diaries, court records, pro-slavery and travel writings all offer significant insights into the world of the enslaved, and should not be ignored. The historian Nell Painter describes the need to transcend such a binary approach: ‘most historians followed (and all too often still follow) segregations decree and wrote about the South as though people of different races occupied entirely different spheres.’[1] That this was not the case is abundantly clear and setting a stark binary will lead to a warped understanding of the topic, regardless of who is being studied. In this respect, John Blassingame’s statement from 1975, whilst undoubtedly one of the most commonly repeated quotes in histories of slavery, remains relevant:

If scholars want to know the heart and secret thoughts of slaves they must study the testimony of the blacks... But since the slave did not know the heart and secret thoughts of masters, they must also examine the testimony of whites. Neither the whites nor the blacks had a monopoly on truth, had rended the veil cloaking the life of the other, or had seen clearly the pain and the joy bounded by color and caste.[2]

Communities and people do not exist in separate universes based on colour; it is only through exploring the interactions and engagements between white and black people that we can come to wider conclusions on the nature of male identities in the antebellum South. Any study on enslaved conceptions of gender must be placed within wider understandings and engagement with manhood and identity amongst antebellum southerners of different creeds and classes. Interactions between various groups of people played a significant role in constructing, solidifying or denying certain identities, and therefore exploring how groups of people, as well as individuals, were semantically, legislatively or practically categorised as “male” will enable a more detailed discussion on specific understandings of gender.


[1] Nell Irvin Painter, Southern History Across the Color Line (UNC; Chapel Hill, 2003), p. 2

[2] Blassingame, ‘Using Slave Testimony: approaches and problems’, Journal of Southern History, Vol 41 1975, pp.473-492, p. 492