Archive for the ‘“Classic” Reviews’ Category

At some point, every graduate student in history has to read Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s Time on the Cross – a large-scale quantitative study of American slavery. I’ve read a lot of history books and I’ve never known another book which provokes such visceral dislike from graduate students as Time on the Cross. They rightly insist that the psychological element of slavery is too important to simply gloss over with massive data banks. Furthemore, the statistics and conclusions that Fogel and Engerman used were, in spots, questionable. For example, using one planter’s record book, the authors argued that each slave was only whipped something like 7.2 times per year and so slavery wasn’t as brutal as its conventional image. As if one severe whipping in an entire lifetime wouldn’t be bad enough. And this is only the tip of the iceberg.  Read Time on the Cross for yourself – it’s an interesting read, but do so with a critical eye. But in all fairness the data bank used in this book is a truly indespensable historical treasure trove. Time on the Cross  is also one of very few books that I know of which actually inspired a book-length rebuttal from another scholar. I wrote this “classic” review for a class taught by my friend Richard Starnes. That week another student read and reviewed Time on the Cross and I did the same for Herbert Gutman’s equally important Slavery and the Numbers Game.

I’ve not been posting much lately, but over the past three or four weeks, I’ve read Eugene D. Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. I’ve not made time to read every day, but considering it’s length and density, Genovese is not something you read quickly unless you are highly motivated. Nevertheless, I hope to finish it tomorrow morning and have a review read for my loyal reader(s) in the next few days. It’s one of the most important and entertaining books ever written on slavery and I only hope I can do it justice. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this older review.

Herbert G. Gutman. Slavery and the Numbers Game: A Critique of Time on the Cross. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975.

When first published, Stanley Engerman and Robert Fogel’s Time on the Cross (2 Vols., 1974) attracted an unusually high amount of attention from the popular media, much of it positive. Time on the Cross presented mounds of numerical evidence compiled from various archives and interpreted through large-scale quantitative analysis. The authors insisted that the traditional view of American slavery was incorrect: slaves worked hard and experienced social mobility, masters supported the creation of strong slave families, and bondsmen internalized the “protestant work ethic.” In fact, American slavery is a story “achievement under adversity” (5). Perhaps the key to the book’s popular critical acclaim lies in the second volume, where Fogel and Engerman present their evidence and complicated mathematical formulas. The authors used a second volume full of complicated formulas so that few could understand, much less criticize their work. Time on the Cross turned out to be a beautiful but flimsy house of cards.

While the evidence seemed impenetrable, Herbert G. Gutman published his own book-length rebuttal of Time on the Cross and nailed Fogel and Engerman to this proverbial cross. Gutman found that the authors’ evidence was non-representative, badly misinterpreted, and deeply flawed. He challenged Fogel and Engerman’s contention that slaves were seldom whipped, that owners encouraged the creation of stable families, and that slaves embraced the protestant work ethic and Victorian sexual mores. Gutman also asserted the authors ignored many important facets of slavery. For example, Fogel and Engerman looked at probate records and invoices from slave sales in New Orleans and found that slave couples moved west together with their owners. Thus, the interstate slave trade related to the opening of the west did not destroy black families. Gutman found this evidence incomplete because Fogel and Engerman did not account for the fact that slave’s spouses were not always owned by the same master. Furthermore, the authors of Time on the Cross did not consider adult parents, extended family, friends, and neighbors left behind when determining whether or not the slave trade disrupted slave families and communities. After looking at these factors, Gutman created his own statistical models and thereby convincingly refuted Fogel and Engerman. This is only one example. Throughout the book, Gutman systematically attacked the authors’ evidence and mathematical formulas. Gutman, however, saved the crusher for his conclusion: Fogel and Engerman asked the wrong questions and used the same conceptual framework of U. B. Philips, Kenneth Stampp, and Stanley Elkins. Instead of asking how slaves helped shape their world, these historians reduced slaves to cogs in a machine who only reacted to external stimuli. While Fogel and Engerman touted their work as path breaking, Gutman found it pitifully outdated.

Gutman’s book is a very careful and convincing analysis of a very provocative book. He has no problem with cliometrics per se, but found Fogel and Engerman’s conceptual approach inadequate. Although Gutman’s mathematical abbreviations for the authors’ names and book title (“E+F” and “T/C”) give the book a sarcastic tone, Slavery and the Numbers Game is an excellent primer for graduate students wishing to use quantitative analysis in theses and dissertations. By showing how easily numbers can be twisted, Gutman demonstrates the pitfalls surrounding quantitative analysis and gives a stern warning for any young academic looking to pursue that path. Moreover, Gutman reminds us that the questions a historian asks are just as important as their conclusions. Unfortunately, Slavery and the Numbers Game did not receive the same popular audience as Time on the Cross. Although they did not intend to, the picture of slavery and postwar black society that Fogel and Engerman depict comes off as declensionist. By getting their facts and approach wrong, hinting that in some ways slavery was better than freedom, and adopting the “blame the victim” (176) approach, Fogel and Engerman have given ammunition to unreconstructed southerners who still use this book to defend the Old South.


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Yes, I know it’s been a month since I posted anything here on my lonely little blog. I do have valid excuses. Over the past month, I had to focus on studying for the GRE rather than reading. I took the test today and I am happy to report that I did well enough so that I’ll never have to take that the GRE ever again. With the deck cleared and another layoff looming, I can turn my full attention to my reading list. I am almost done with Edmund S. Morgan’s masterful American Slavery, American Freedom (in fact, I hope to finish it in the next few days and post a review by next week). Up next on the list is Eugene D. Genovese’s classic Roll, Jordan, Roll, a tome on slavery that is still ranks among the most important books on the subject nearly forty years after its publication. I hope that, with the GRE out of the way, I can use this blog more regularly. So stay tuned.

For now, you’ll have to be content with another of my so-called “classic” reviews, this one a 1200-word review that I churned out when I was a graduate student. I just reread it and while I thought it was better when I first wrote it than I do now, it’s not half bad. And for the record, if you think you might be interested in George Rogers’ book on Charleston and do not consider yourself an academic, I do recommend it. It’s a thin volume, it reads well, and there is a lot of interesting information here about the history of a city that I love. And if you’ve ever been to Charleston, you probably love it too.

George C. Rogers, Jr. Charleston in the Age of the Pinckneys. 2d ed. Columbia, S. C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1980.

During the colonial era, Charleston was among the most important, richest, and cosmopolitan cities in British North America. Around 1820, however, the city began a slow decline into provincialism which today remains a hallmark of the so-called “Holy City.” In 1969, George C. Rogers, Jr. published the thin but masterful, Charleston in the Age of the Pinckneys. Each of Rogers’ chapters follows a specific theme: economics, openness, sensuousness, the mind of the city, the drive to join the union, and finally, succession. Rogers argues that economic growth, geography, and mercantilism made Charleston extremely rich and cosmopolitan. For this reason, Charlestonians gladly supported joining the union after the American Revolution. By 1860, Charleston had become a closed city marked by ancestor worship, racial tension, and extreme provincialism which led to city becoming a hotbed of secession. Historians in the twenty-first century will likely criticize Rogers. Essentially the book is about white elite males, with little attention paid to slaves, women, and the lower classes. Despite such criticism, Rogers’ book is excellent based on the historiographic paradigm of the late 1960s, and his work provides an excellent overview of the rise and fall of Charleston between 1720 and 1820. More than anything else, however, the book provides a template for present day historians to understand the city of Charleston during its golden age.

Rogers begins with an examination of the economic base of the city. He cites the numerous advantages Charleston possessed during the eighteenth century. Geography played a major role in the rise of the city; not only did it exist in a central location on the South Carolina coast, but the presence of nearby rice and indigo plantations benefited the burgeoning economy. In addition, trade winds sent London ships to various Caribbean islands, then to Charleston, where the ships then sailed to eastern ports before returning to Britain. In this mercantilist economy, a wide variety of professions flourished in the city including trade, shipping, law, retail, and most importantly, slave trading. Charleston experienced economic development during the various colonial wars and through piracy thereby allowing merchants to become incredibly rich. Because of this growth, many different peoples came to the New World through Charleston, and some put down roots, creating a true cultural melting pot. Nevertheless, so many different people entering such a hot and humid city created many public health emergencies. Fires, hurricanes, and disease made life in the young city perilous, but it also created a city open to new ideas including literature, the arts, and political theory. Trade profits also helped build some of the finest homes in America, many of which still stand proudly two centuries later. Members of the Pinckney family were among the most important leaders that South Carolina produced between 1720 and 1820. Thanks to elitist intermarrying in the city, the Pinckneys and their progenitors became rich, powerful, and influential in early American politics. Although there were some divided loyalties in this clan, many of the Pinckneys supported the Federalist Party and two even signed the United States Constitution.

Around 1820, the city began a long decline from which it has never fully recovered. Along with the rise of the backcountry and the placement of the state capital in Columbia (the only place in the state hotter than Charleston), the rise of massive cotton plantations in the black belt and the emergence of other port cities damaged Charleston commerce. After Denmark Vesey’s failed slave rebellion, the fear of servile insurrection became pathological among whites in the city, leading to a closed society. The thriving Charleston Library Society never recovered from the American Revolution, and after 1820, many elites openly questioned the value of education. Rather than looking to the future, which Charleston clearly did not have, citizens began to exalt their past and began a long tradition of ancestor worship that is still very common today. The arts community in Charleston, also in full decline after 1820, began producing works that romanticized the city’s history and produced portraits of Sergeant Jasper and other Revolutionary heroes. By 1860, the city was so inward looking that it spearheaded the southern drive for secession.

The material not covered in this book is reflective of the historiographic changes of the past forty years. Although Rogers does discuss the development of the Gullah language and other aspect of black culture in lowcountry South Carolina, African peoples remain largely silent in the narrative. Women, likewise, are also shadowy figures in the book. In the past forty years, historians have widened their focus to include the margins of society and, in this light, Rogers’ books seems somewhat dated. Consider, however, Rogers’ rich descriptions of Charleston homes which includes a thorough examination of food, architecture, and even slave quarters. Using these descriptions – which Rogers’ based largely on probate records, paintings,  travel accounts, and even recipes – a historian using material culture analysis could augment scholarly understanding of race, class, and gender in this era. For example, slave quarters in the city were often in close proximity to the master’s house. Could examining these structures reveal in the influence of African architecture on Europeans, or vice versa? Do the races living so close together have any effect on gender roles?  Possible questions inspired by material culture are legion.

This book could prove very foundational in Atlantic World studies because Rogers discusses many of the different groups that migrated to Charleston during the colonial period and even analyzes the importance of the individuals who sent their sons to England academies. Not only did this create many different accents in Charleston (all preludes to the southern drawl), but this movement across the Atlantic created a bustling heterogeneous urban center. No group that migrated to Charleston was ever the same after spending time in the Holy City. Blacks created Gullah, European peoples borrowed from each other, and Native Americans became involved in the booming mercantile economy. England, also, was never the same after the founding of Charleston. Not only did Charleston become obscenely wealthy, but London merchants fattened up in the process.

There are other examples that demonstrate the book’s use for Atlantic world historians. Consider these two sentences: “Tastes were as diverse in origin and delightful in results as were [the] sounds [of the city]. The ingredients of the South Carolina diet came from the entire Atlantic and Mediterranean world: Jordan almonds, port, Madeira, sherry, lemons and oranges from Spain, champagne, curaçao, and grenadine syrups – benne seeds from Sierra Leone.”Not only are these items coming to Charleston, but rice, indigo, and other Carolina products were also going to these far off places. Furthermore, the ways in which migrant groups settled certainly influenced the culture of the city. French Huguenots, for instance, continued to speak French well into the nineteenth century and created an ethnic pocket for themselves. Many wills, titles and deeds in the city archives were, indeed, written in French.

The academic climate in which Rogers wrote played in an instrumental part of shaping the content of this book. This paradigm only allowed the author to discuss, primarily, rich white men and their role in creating Charleston society. But the things that Rogers simply described for the benefit of his audience (housing, food, the arts, and religion) indicate the enduring value of this book. Because so many different groups travelled to Charleston during the Atlantic era, it is a place that historians cannot refuse to ignore, and the book presents a roadmap that many historians have used, and many more should consider.

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Normally I post my “classic” reviews randomly. I usually just want to post something on my blog and I go through my old files until I hit on one that I feel like sharing. There is actually a specific reason I’m posting my old (and upon rereading it, rather uninspired) review of Jon Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith. I am currently reading Butler’s Becoming America: The Revolution Before 1776 (2000) and I can’t help but be astonished at stark differences of the two books – Awash in a Sea of Faith is in-your-face revisionism that makes the reader reconsider everything they think they know about America’s religious origins. It is truly a masterpiece and is on most comprehensive exam reading lists throughout the country. Becoming America, which I will likely review for this blog in the next week or so, is very readable and broadly appealing, but quite dull when compared to the other book. I’m not done with Becoming America just yet, so I had better hold off judgment for now. But so far, I think I’m going to be disappointed with Becoming America if I choose to tease out these comparisons.

You’ll have a few days to wait to see what I end up doing with my review of Becoming America, but until then I hope you enjoy this review of Awash in a Sea of Faith that I wrote for Richard Starnes’ course on Nineteenth Century America. I highly recommend the book to anybody interested in America’s religious origins – a topic that always seems relevant to 21st century political and social discourse in the USA.

Jon Butler. Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Jon Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith is nothing if not provocative. In a carefully framed study, Butler effectively lays to rest any historiographical assumptions that American religious history has been a story of declension. Where historians and laymen have seen Puritan New England as the high point of American religiosity that later declined after 1700, Butler finds that between the founding of British North America and the Civil War, American religious history is a story of ascension. Although Awash in a Sea of Faith is perhaps designed as a wake-up call to those who suggest that American was founded as a ‘Christian nation’ and call for a return to a mythic past, the book is also a historiographic revelation. Perhaps the most important piece of Butler’s work is his definition of religion: “[a] belief in and resort to superhuman powers, sometimes beings, that determine the course of natural and human events” (pg. 3). For Butler, religion transcends organized religious bodies and their various theologies. Religion can include witchcraft, the occult, astrology, and a host of other ideas. These various religious beliefs, as Butler defines them, had deep roots in Europe and still remain with us today. This definition allows him to seriously look at links between the occult and Christianity in a meaningful way.

Butler finds that by 1700, the survival of American Christianity was in grave danger. There were simply too many different religious beliefs and groups in British North America. Declension seemed inevitable. There were some early religious successes, the most important being a systematic “spiritual holocaust” (pp. 129-30) that quashed religious systems from Africa. While minimizing the importance of the Great Awakening, Butler stresses that the successful establishment of Anglican and Congregational denominations before 1776 proved critical in maintaining Christianity in the colonies. This success, Butler insists rested on the coercive power of religion, a theme he frequently returns to throughout the text. While the Revolution threatened religions, they would thrive in the antebellum period. Various religions such as Methodism, Mormonism, slave belief systems, and spiritualism displayed syncretic tendencies that made their radical elements more mainstream but still ensured religious heterogeneity. Finally, disestablishment of state religion, the ratification of the First Amendment, and the increasingly bureaucratization of various denominations, led to and protected the polyglot of voluntary religious organizations that typified the nation on the eve of the Civil War. 

Butler’s definition of religion is sufficiently inclusive enough to allow him to undertake such a vast study. Discussions of the occult, dreams, magic, and Dissenters make it clear that early America was extraordinarily diverse beyond innumerable Christian sects. The title of the book perfectly captures the religious reality of early America: turbulent, incredibly vast, and seemingly headed for disaster. Furthermore, the subtitle indicates the outcome of this turbulent diversity: America ultimately became Christianized, but never in a homogenous or monolithic sense. Butler’s definition, while it allows spectacular analytical possibilities, also presents problems because of its inclusiveness. Any omissions of important groups or religions become glaring. For example, the role of Native American belief systems in shaping American religion, as Butler defines it, is almost entirely neglected. Any work dealing with the period before 1815 must give due perspective to the Amerindian influence on both white and black society.

All reservations aside, Awash in a Sea of Faith succeeds in posing as many questions as it answers. Butler’s book, unlike any other recent monograph, sets an agenda for the study of American religion. On a fundamental level, Butler forces historians rethink just what constitutes ‘religion.’ No less important, by turning out focus away from Puritan New England in favor of the complex religious diversity in early America, historians will find that Butler’s ascension thesis offers a great amount of opportunity for further historical inquiry.

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I wrote this review in a course on Nineteenth Century America, taught by my friend Richard Starnes – a fine historian himself. Soul By Soul is one of the best books I’ve ever read – and I’m including both fiction and nonfiction. I read many important and well-researched books in graduate school that I would not recommend to anybody who was not an academic. Johnson’s book is important, riveting, and accessible to anybody with a decent education. If you can find this book at your local bookstore or public library, I strongly urge you to read it. Note that this review had to be one, single-spaced page and (thankfully) I had to adjust my style accordingly to say a lot in a limited space.

Walter Johnson. Soul By Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.

It has often been tempting for historians to divorce the economics of slavery from the crucial psychological element of human bondage because of disciplinary specialization. Some brand themselves economic historians, while others declare themselves political, gender, or religious historians. For example, whereas historians like Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman examined the numbers behind slavery, other scholars like Eugene Genovese and Michael Gomez looked at the social side of the equation. The problem here is obvious: disciplinary specialization does not allow for a holistic picture of slavery because academics from different backgrounds usually talk past each other. While Walter Johnson is clearly not building any bridges between cliometricians and social historians, his book Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market demolishes any notion that the economics of slavery can be somehow be divorced from the psychological side of the picture. Some might argue that economic and social aspects of slavery are two sides of the same coin, but Johnson insists that they are too powerfully intertwined to be extracted, deconstructed, and then reconstructed separately as historians have done for over a century.

Johnson argues that the slave trade represented “the commercial and social aspirations” of southern society (7). White southerners hoped to use slavery as a tool for social mobility. Moreover, the ultimate symbol of whiteness was slave ownership; the slave market, with is price fluctuations and economic shifts, embodied the dreams of an entire people. The dreams of the white society had a powerful effect on the black South, embodied in the “chattel principle,” which could cause “any slave’s identity…[to] be disrupted as easily as a price could be set and a piece of paper passed from one hand to another” (19). Johnson also persuasively argues that modern American racism can trace its hideous origins to slave pens, where buyers probed, examined, and humiliated their potential property.  These frequent examinations taught whites to “read black bodies” and to “imagine blackness into meaning” (149). The story might end there if slaves had no agency, but African Americans could shape their own sales by representing themselves a certain way, running away, or feigning illness. Therefore the slaves themselves had enormous influence within the southern economy and society. But if slaves did not live up to the expectations of their owners, the system became intensely brutal. Whites who were fooled, either by slaves or by dealers, often felt intense rage. Their dreams had been shattered, their aspirations at perfect whiteness stymied, and the very heart of what it meant to be a white southerner passed them over.

While superb in narrative and elegantly written, Johnson’s book shines brightest in its analysis of the multilayered meanings of the slave market. By looking at slave markets through the lens of its three main participants – slaves, dealers, and buyers – Johnson unpacks the tangled web of interconnectedness between economics, dreams of social mobility, race and racism, the structures of both white and black families, and the law in the antebellum South. The greatest strength of Johnson’s book lies in its explanatory power. While Johnson does not argue that the slave market is the monocausal agent that shaped antebellum society, he shows the broad importance of an economic institution on southern society as a whole without coming across as heavy-handed. The influence of Soul By Soul on the historiography of American slavery will be hard to measure as it will refocus the debate and set an agenda for future studies. At a more fundamental level, however, Johnson offers a startling vision for a more inclusive and holistic historiography. In order to truly understand history, one must integrate economics, politics, family life, gender, and even environment into a more cohesive narrative. After all, people do not lead their lives in separation from the factors that historians often study in isolation.

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While I am finishing John Wigger’s excellent biography of early American Methodist leader Francis Asbury, I thought I would indulge my readers with another of my so-called classic reviews. This is one is mostly summative review of James Cobb’s classic on southern industrialization. Although the language of my review is a bit formal, I remember reading this book and laughing out loud several times. Cobb, a southerner to the core, knows how to strike the right chords with his audience to both educated and entertain. Furthermore, Cobb’s interpretation still resonates with historians and his writings on industrialization are among the most important to understanding the period in question. When I look back at this review, I didn’t do the author justice in describing his arguments, but I do give a good summary of his narrative, for what it’s worth.

James C. Cobb. Industrialization and Southern Society, 1877-1984. Lexington, Ky.: The University Press of Kentucky, 1984.

Why does the south continue to lag behind the rest of the nation in wages and standards of living, even after the rise of the Sunbelt? James C. Cobb contends causes for such lack of equality between north and south is rooted in continuity from the plantation economy of the antebellum era to the present. Cobb further contends that the unique course of southern industrialization did not foster an equalitarian society as many observers hoped and believed it would; rather it strengthened the existing status quo. Still, in other ways, southern society experienced change.

Cobb begins by discussing early industrialization in the south. He maintains that industry was quite viable in the antebellum south, although it certainly was not simple. Weak capital investment remained a chief factor in slow industrial growth in the south. The few antebellum industries in the south remained tied to the cotton industry, its chief resource. Thus, industry and cotton reinforced each others weaknesses. For instance, lack of agricultural diversification severely limited early industrial growth. Cobb contends that the post-Reconstruction New South movement was led by wealthy planters unwilling to loosen their hold on southern society. The rising middle-class of professionals and merchants maintained close economic ties to the plantation elite because of benefits from the cotton trade. These conditions laid the groundwork for continuity from the Old South to the New.

In the 1920s, Business Progressivism asserted that southern problems could be solved by economic development through educational spending, improving city facilities, and maintaining low taxes to lure industry south. This became the south’s credo after World War I. The double whammy of boll weevil devastation and mass unemployment brought on by the Great Depression left the south with a huge unskilled labor force hungry for any kind of work. Most agreed that the South must gain more manufacturing firms in order to survive. Government and business leaders (such as governors and local chambers of commerce) began a vigorous campaign to lure business south by promising huge subsidies, low taxes, cheap labor and sparse unionization. Industrialists flooded the south. Since most southern states offered practically the same benefits, former Confederate states competed intensely for new manufacturing firms. This transformed southern statesmanship, making governors salesmen for their state. It also allowed businesses to dictate outrageous demands in this climate of furious competition. Furthermore, the abundance of unskilled cheap labor lent itself to industries that offered little economic growth, such as textiles and timber.

Nevertheless, the South did experience tremendous economic growth and change after World War II, becoming known as the Sunbelt. In-migration to Florida from the north created a huge market in the south, and other states experienced similar population growth. Foreign investment, more technologically advanced industry and the emergence of banking and real estate sectors also contribute to the growing southern economy. Moreover, the image of the south as backward allowed for tremendous amounts of federal money to flow below the Mason-Dixon Line. Finally, the lack of unionization made the south very attractive to industrialists. Several factors contributed to lack of unionization: business hostility toward strikers, right-to-work laws, anticommunist media propaganda, and social factors such individualism typical of the rural south.

Southern leaders learned that to grow industry, they must clean up their image. New hospitals, parks, and public facilities became common throughout the post-war south. Reforms led to the modernization of politics in the hope to draw more investment capital. Education received a face life, especially through vocational programs and new research facilities such as the ones in the Raleigh – Chapel Hill – Durham corridor.  Race relations benefited from the drive to attract new business. States with bad race relations, such as Mississippi, suffered terrible public relations and many companies were hesitant to relocate in such an unstable environment. To remedy this, southern whites began making token concessions to blacks to quiet the unrest in the drive for newer and better industries.

The southern ecology suffered at the hands of industrialists. In the marketing drive for factories, southern leaders allowed industrialists to do as they pleased with the local environment and its natural resources. In the 1970s, as environmental awareness spurred federal action, southern states took the lead to enact laws to protect the ecology to head-off Washington intervention. Nevertheless, corporate abuses are still rampant. A paradoxical situation emerged: the south’s physical appeal is damaged by industry, one of the very things that led to capital investment in the region.

Cobb analyzes the reasons why the New South never became like the north. He finds that the perpetuation of the conservative plantation system through industrialization kept wages low for whites and blacks subordinate. The process of southern industrialization was far too slow and cheap white labor far too abundant for any coalition building between blacks and blue collar whites for a more liberal society to develop. Furthermore, the tendency of industrialists to build in small towns filled with cheap white labor kept the flavor of the region decidedly rural and unfavorable to unions and urbanization, which would mean higher wages and standards of living. Because of the depressed state of the region, many workers felt that they are simply lucky to have jobs, further crushing hopes of unionists. The fear of blacks taking white jobs and driving down wages keeps them out of manufacturing and in menial service-type positions. The desire of many elites and industrialists to maintain stability and the status quo further hurt the economic position of African Americans in the south. Although industrialism challenged the southern way of life, and eroded some the south’s most endearing features, other elements of the Old South remain firmly entrenched. In the end, the paternalist plantation system still reverberates throughout the south, leaving the region with inferior wages and standards of living than the rest of the nation.

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During my first semester in graduate school, I was still learning how to write a proper academic book review. I had some rough starts, but eventually I got the hang of it. This particular paper came from Dr. Elizabeth McRae’s course, a primer in historiography and historical theory required for first semester grad students. This is probably not the best review I wrote even in my first semester, but the book I reviewed was one of the better ones I read in two years of course work. Claudio Saunt, a professor McRae studied under at the University of Georgia, used genealogy and history to show that racial lines in the United States are so intertwined and tangled that the notion of “race” as we think of it today is pure fiction. The idea of race being socially constructed might be foolish or even shocking to some, but if you have any doubts, you should read Saunt’s book for yourself. It is absolutely riveting reading and the human drama in the book is absolutely heart-breaking.

Claudio Saunt. Black, White, and Indian: Race and the Unmaking of an American Family. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

When George Washington Grayson’s autobiography was published in 1988, editors made certain “adjustments” at the request of his descendants to conceal a racially diverse genealogy.  Claudio Saunt’s attempt to fill in these ellipses not only uncovers unsettling information about the Grayson family, but also the troubling history of racism in the Creek nation. The racial diversity of this family allows Saunt to show that “…with race, inequality, and conflict at the core of their story, the Graysons are truly American, and in one way or another, we all belong to their family.” In other words, the Graysons embody the racial problems in American history.  Although certain aspects are very controversial, Saunt provides a very convincing, relevant, and, at times, disturbing portrait of race through the story of an American family.

Saunt begins in the late eighteenth century with Robert Grierson (later changed to Grayson), a Scottish trader who married Sinnugee (a Creek maiden). The real story of the book is the consequences of the choices made by two of their children: Katy and William. As a young man, William began a lifelong love affair with his father’s slave Judah. Likewise, Katy also became involved with a person of African descent (although little is known about his life). William and Katy both had biracial children; eventually Katy left her lover and their children to marry a Creek (Tulwa Tustanagee).  William, however, stayed with Judah for the rest of his life. These choices sent their families down completely opposite paths. Katy had children with Tulwa who eventually became affluent Creek citizens. Their son Wash (the aforementioned George Washington Grayson) received an excellent education and eventually became chief.  The descendants of William and Judah became victims of racism from within and outside of the Creek nation and mired in poverty for generations.  Saunt follows these different paths into the twentieth century.

Saunt asserts that mixed-blood Indians emulated the racial hierarchy of the plantation south in hopes of improving their low social status. Laws were commonly enacted for these racist purposes.  For instance, in 1859, Creek laws effectively ended black citizenship and made kinship partially based on race; this is contrary to the traditional matrilineal Creek society which often “adopted” outsiders (including African-American slaves). After the Civil War, pro-Confederate Creeks felt that the survival of their nation depended on racial supremacy. Following the cues of their southern comrades, Creeks began passing laws to disenfranchise newly-freed slaves. Again, people like Wash made conscious decisions to emulate whites rather than looking to their Native-American heritage and embittered their cousins in the process. The tragedy of the situation is that European-Americans truly had no use for Indians, mixed blood or not. For instance, around the turn of the twentieth century, many Americans felt that progress was inevitable and the literature of the day certainly reflects this idea.  Many authors asserted that Indians would simply die out as a testament to their racial inferiority (exemplified in Mary Holland Kinkade’s The Man of Yesterday: A Romance of a Vanishing Race). In the end, the Creeks did not unite to fight against the white onslaught (who often exploited Indians to obtain their land). Rather, white Creeks chose to become more committed to racial subjugation and again followed the southern model and entrenched Jim Crow culture into their society. 

The impact of Creek racism is clearly evident today. By using profiles at the beginning of each Chapter, Saunt is able to give his book a sparkling relevance often missing in some historical studies. These profiles make the reader face the thinly veiled racism still widespread across the nation. For example, in one profile, Saunt relates the story of Rudy Hutton (a Grayson descendant) and his family’s troubles obtaining Creek citizenship because of their African heritage. Hutton stated, “The SOBs at Okmulgee, they won’t give you nothing unless you’re a white guy.” By including such statements, Saunt does not take the route of many historians who keep their reader constantly anchored in the past, with little mention of future events until the last few pages of text. Rather, he reminds the reader that the Grayson story is unfolding even today.  

 To construct the text, Saunt used an array of terrific primary materials. Wash Grayson was the only family member who left behind a detailed personal record. Unfortunately, the family denied Saunt access to the original manuscript of Grayson’s autobiography. Still, he was able to get full access to Wash’s articulate diary. This gives the reader a vivid first-hand account of the life of a prominent white Creek. At first glance, it appears that Saunt is at a distinct disadvantage because none of William and Judah’s descendants left behind personal records of their lives to counterpoint Wash’s account (in fact, most of them were illiterate). Nevertheless, Saunt used census records, war department materials, WPA interviews, missionary correspondence, and exhaustive archival research to recreate the lives of black Grayson family members. Through this research, Saunt overcame this disadvantage and painted a vivid picture of the lives of William and Judah’s descendants.  

For all its merits, the whole premise of this book is highly controversial. Although many Grayson descendants cooperated with Saunt, he met firm opposition from others. Time after time, family members hung up on Saunt when he telephoned them to inquire about their relatives. Some might argue that a historian has no business conducing research that opens old wounds individuals would just as soon forget.  Perhaps Saunt should be faulted for not respecting the privacy of certain Grayson descendants. Moreover, it is wrong to assume that these individuals are racist; but their silence speaks volumes. They obviously wanted to keep their African descent a secret. This silence actually helps Saunt’s argument by showing greater relevance. For these members of the Grayson family, the ghosts of the past are very much alive and guiding their current actions. Furthermore, it is this condition which gives meaning to Saunt’s closing statement, “…until we fill in the ellipses present…metaphorically in our national narrative of America’s origins, the missing text will continue to haunt our history books and our lives.”

Saunt is successful on many levels. He is able to show how individual agency affected the lives of many Creek Indians. By denying their own racially diverse past and emulating Europeans, Katy’s descendants excluded their relatives of African descent of the lifestyle they freely enjoyed. Through the profiles preceding each chapter, Saunt is able to show the lingering animosities related to the choices of individuals over one hundred years ago. By showing this relevance, Saunt demonstrates that history does not exist in a vacuum. Therein lies the strength to this book. Not only does it give a convincing portrayal of the racist accommodations many Creeks made for survival, it reminds the reader that long-term impacts of denied citizenship and “selective genealogy” are a clearly visible problem for the nation.

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I’m almost embarrassed to keep posting these so-called “classic” reviews because it gives away the fact that I’m not getting too much reading done. Right now, I’m still reading Gordon S. Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution. It’s a  really brilliant book, but also long and very dense. I like to read a few pages every day, especially when I’m on my lunch break, but also when I’m at home and want something to entertain my brain. I should be done with it in the next week or so, and until then my few loyal readers will have to be content with another old review. In the Fall of ’08, I took Dr. Alexander Macaulay’s gender history course at WCU and it turned out to be really difficult and really rewarding. Gender and Jim Crow is one of the best historical monographs I’ve ever read (and is almost always on comprehensive exam reading lists). After reading this book, I wanted to be just like Glenda Gilmore because her research is second to none, her analysis is simultaneously overwhelming but subtle, and she is one of the best writers in the American Academy.  Her next book is on my reading list, but don’t expect the review for some time. This is one of the better papers I wrote as a graduate student and I hope you enjoy reading it.

Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore. Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Political history is generally written in a top-down fashion. When studying the public sphere, historians typically discuss elections, political parties, and the various orifices of the body politic. This attention singles out powerful politicians and influential constituents. Studying top-down Jim Crow politics presents a number of serious problems because it denies agency to the oppressed. When women and blacks have emerged in southern political history narratives, the story of their exclusion from the public sphere has garnered the most attention. From this perspective, the history of women and blacks in southern politics is a gut-wrenching story of oppression by the all-powerful and often intensely brutal southern white man, and the issue of subaltern agency seems blasé. How could anybody resist the sheer force of southern white men on their bigoted mission of exclusion? The advent of gender history in the 1990s, however, obliterated this paradigm forever. Glenda E. Gilmore’s Gender and Jim Crow demonstrated that the matrix of race, class, and gender defined the ways that one could shape or resist white supremacy in New South, and therefore the outcome of the fight over the institutionalization of Jim Crow was no forgone conclusion. As part of this thesis, Gilmore argues that middle-class black women entered the public sphere and very subtly defied and reshaped Jim Crow in their relentless search for racial equality. This inclusive narrative created an agenda for historians to reconsider the Jim Crow political arena through a bottom-up lens and therefore redefine what constituted movement within the public sphere. Gender and Jim Crow is a true tour de force and the New South never looked newer.

Gilmore noted that some of the worst practices by historians distorted the narrative of Jim Crow politics, including excessive labeling of subfields and reliance on one-sided documents that obscure reality. She asserted that “[t]he subfields of the discipline – African American history, women’s history, social history, southern history, political history – are drawn by and for historians. Analyses that separate these subfields misrepresent the way people actually lived their lives.” She goes on, “Basing southern political history on white archival sources has rendered African Americans as passive recipients of whites’ actions. Black middle-class men have appeared as exceptions in the narrative, while black women have disappeared altogether.” In other words, the use of too many labels and ‘white’ sources accomplishes what amounts an unintended brand of Jim Crow. By refusing to acknowledge the agency of African Americans in the political world of white supremacy, historians relegate them as powerless individuals destined to ride quietly on the back of the bus in southern historiography.

By reshaping the meaning of the public sphere using gender, Gilmore placed African American women at the front of the bus in southern political history. For example, black women working for social causes through their churches had major influence on politics. Around 1890, whites started to portray black men as savage rapists that no white woman would be safe around. When a black man raped a white woman, he violated her exalted virtue and asserted his manliness above that of white men. Black men in public therefore appeared as threats to both southern manhood and womanhood and those who entered the public sphere risked death. Middle class black women, however, posed no such threat to white gender identity and took up the cross of racial equality because their husbands, whom Gilmore dubbed ‘best men,’ could not. Through churches and clubs, African American women honed their organizational skills working for causes such as temperance, sanitation, education, and other Progressive Era reform initiatives. They then parlayed their expertise into interaction with white women after carefully gaining positive reputations as women who could get things done. When the issue of women’s suffrage arose in 1920, black women stood alongside whites and demanded the vote, hoping that white women would support them. Some did indeed champion their black associates, although white male voting registrars generally proved hostile.

In the end, these black women were deprived of suffrage just as their husbands had been twenty years before. One hundred years of hindsight and a historical perspective that tells modern observers that white men would stop at nothing to disenfranchise blacks might leave some readers cynical. They will argue that whites won because they dominated society from the top-down and kept blacks ignorant and therefore dependant. It is important, however, to remember the words of C. Vann Woodward who remarked in 1955 that most of his contemporary southerners were “[u]nable to remember a time when segregation was not the general rule and practice, [and] they have naturally assumed that things have ‘always been that way.’” For African American women in 1920, the historical perspective was quite different. Jim Crow was only two decades old and most could well remember a time when middle class black men occupied a prominent place in the public sphere. Some served as sheriffs or magistrates while others owned successful businesses that catered to white patrons. The fight to turn back the tide of white supremacy was incremental and safely cloaked in the gendered prerogatives of social reform. In the eyes of middle class black women, the triumph of white supremacy in 1920 seemed to be anything but a foregone conclusion. Furthermore, the very institutionalization of white supremacy is evidence that whites felt that blacks did constitute a major threat and that their own ultimate success was uncertain.

Ironically, Gilmore creates this inclusive narrative by only focusing on a few prominent middle class black women in North Carolina like Charlotte Hawkins Brown and Sarah Dudley Pettey. Critics will allege that these women are unrepresentative of black women across the South, but are especially anomalous compared to those in Deep South states like Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. Strict segregation was certainly ubiquitous in the Old North State, but the racial politics of the Deep South made North Carolina a relatively tolerable, but far from pleasant, place for African Americans to live during the Jim Crow years. Simply put, it was easier to defy Jim Crow in North Carolina than other southern states. However, Gilmore’s focus on a few women in North Carolina is pragmatic for three reasons. First of all, it allows the author to keep the book focused and the reader engaged. Second, it is likely that black women in North Carolina who defied Jim Crow were more likely to leave behind source material for historians; their sisters in the Deep South could not safely leave behind such traces. Thirdly, and most importantly, Gilmore’s approach gives the audience a perspective of the entire lives of these women. African American tactics shaped by the matrix of race, class, and gender changed throughout this very dynamic era in southern history. As Woodward demonstrated, the ‘White South’ was far from monolithic and it took decades to create enough solidarity to form the Solid South. Biographical sketches show the ways that these chaotic times shaped African American responses through a vortex of change when nothing could seem inevitable or out of reach to anybody. Simply put, these examples allow Gilmore to illustrate the various historical contingencies of the Jim Crow age.

What is so stunning about the book is that Gilmore used gender analysis in such an understated way that the reader does not always clearly recognize it. Scholars like Gail Bederman and Kristin L. Hoganson were so passionate in their desire to put gender analysis into the historiographic mainstream that their use strong use of gendered images made their arguments anything but subtle. Both historians used prominent examples of gender such as political cartoons, discussions of fears of emasculation, and even occasional phallic references. Although their use of gender proved enormously fruitful, Bederman and Hoganson’s vibrant arguments in favor of gender caused their work to be pigeonholed as ‘gender history.’ As Gilmore recognized, excessive categorization of history leads to narrow and sometimes misleading historiographic conclusions. With some exceptions, the use of gender is understated and Gender and Jim Crow, despite the title, does not lend itself to easy categorization because there are no loud gendered images from political cartoons, no crisis in masculinity, and no hegemonic discourse of civilization rooted in fears of societal decay. Gilmore simply presented real women defined by their race, class, and gender who worked tirelessly in the trenches everyday and dearly hoped for equality with whites. The book, while powerful in analysis, has a common touch which helps the reader understand real lives divorced from the sometimes arduous language of academic history.

Whether top-down or bottom-up, the history of Jim Crow will likely cause feelings of guilt and accountability among present-day white southerners. In the final analysis, these feelings are justified.  For modern black southerners, however, top-down Jim Crow history is the story of defeat, oppression, fear, and hate. Although these emotions are also justified they tell an incomplete story. The bottom-up perspective however, allows black southerners to feel pride for the courage of their ancestors who not only simply lived in the Jim Crow South, but raged against the system as well. A narrative with black women alive and active in the public sphere is, as Gilmore said, “long overdue” and historians and laymen can now celebrate these women who defied convention for a goal within their grasp, but denied to them both by historical actors and historiography.

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