“Slave for a Day” and the Tensions in Historiography (Part II: Peter Kotowski)

“[It] is often forgotten that the concept of social death is a distillation from Patterson’s breathtaking survey – a theoretical abstraction that is meant not to describe the lived experiences of the enslaved so much as to reduce them to a least common denominator that could reveal the essence of slavery in an ideal-type slave, short of meaningful heritage.  As a concept, it is what Frederick Cooper has called an ‘agentless abstraction’ that provides a neat cultural logic but ultimately does little to illuminate the social and political experiences of enslavement and the struggles that produce historic transformations.”

- Vincent Brown, “Social Death and Political Life in the Study of Slavery”

I must preface this piece by admitting that I have no formal training in public history.  As such, I cannot offer the same type of illuminating critique that my colleague, Will Ippen, has provided in the companion piece to mine.  What I can do, however, is frame the debate over the Hampton National Historic Site’s “Slave for a Day” event within the context of the extant historiography on North American slavery.

In his excellent essay on the legacy of Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death, historian Vincent Brown articulates a tension between scholarship emphasizing the dehumanizing aspects of antebellum slavery and the overwhelming power of the institution and those works that focus on the collective agency of the enslaved population and the ways in which they resisted enslavement.  In my opinion, the outcry over the “Slave for a Day” event reflects a tendency among many  to adopt the interpretation of slavery stressing the power of the institution to oppress enslaved people.

There are many examples of literature that explores the dehumanizing aspects of slavery.  David Brion Davis’ Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World provides a well-written overview of the institution of slavery while addressing the ways in which the enslaved were systematically dehumanized by plantation masters.  Trevor Burnard’s Master, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and his Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World uses the diary of Thomas Thistlewood to reveal the almost routine ways a slave master could exploit those laboring on his plantation.  Other works, from Ira Berlin’s Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves to Stephanie Smallwood’s Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora chart the many middle passages the enslaved encountered, from their journey across the Atlantic to the second middle passage they faced when threatened with the internal slave trade in North America.Much of what has been written about the Hampton National Historic Site seems to draw from this historiographical trend.  Scholars have rightly pointed to the way the Hampton National Historic Site originally publicized the “Slave for a Day” event.  These pieces note the description of field work and the ability to “work in the fields with actual hoes and scythes.”  It is easy to point to this passage and respond with derision.  How can a historic site accurately recreate the experience of the enslaved when it is impossible to capture the ubiquitous feeling of terror imposed by a plantation master?  It is one thing to work in the field for an hour after disembarking from a minivan, but it is another to work the fields on no sleep and an empty stomach all while filled with dread that you and your friends will be faced with the wrath of an overseer.  Moreover, a day of field work can never capture the threat losing friends and loved ones to the internal slave trade or death.

There is certainly valid criticism here.  It is imperative that we remain cognizant of the horrible and traumatic experience of North American slavery.  Yet this approach overlooks a different trend within the historiography of slavery: works that emphasize resistance, agency, and the ways the enslaved maintained their cultural heritage. Scholarship like Michael Craton’s Testing the Chains: Resistance to Slavery in the British West Indies and Walter C. Rucker’s The River Flows On: Black Resistance, Culture, and Identity Formation in Early America challenge Patterson’s concept of social death by looking at family formation, religion, and resistance among the enslaved.  Vincent Brown’s own work, The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery, explores how enslaved people used the politics of death to negotiate boundaries with slave masters.  The ability to ignore this aspect of the literature can be seen in the tendency for critics of the Hampton National Historic Site to overlook a significant portion of the day’s events, namely the inclusion of the African Diaspora Ancestral Commemoration Institute.  The ADACI is dedicated to “institutionalizing the commemoration of the millions of Africans lost during the Atlantic and other periods of enslavement.”  This purpose is evident in the “Slave for a Day” event, as visitors did not simply work the fields.  In addition, the site’s event featured ancestral African drumming, spiritual advisors, and spoken word artists whose purpose was to help visitors reclaim their roots and “commemorate those who were enslaved at Hampton.”  Perhaps most importantly, visitors had the option of visiting an altar by the slave quarters where they could place their ancestors names on the altar as an act of remembrance.  This highlights an important part of the enslaved experience.  From the first Africans brought to North America to the last generation to toil the fields in bondage, African and African American slave communities bonded together through a shared cultural heritage as a means of finding strength and agency, remembering their roots, and resisting their masters.

The historiography dealing with North American slavery is vast, but the controversy sparked by the Hampton National Historic Site reveals an existing tension in the ways scholars approach the issue.  While the historic site should have publicized the event with greater sensitivity at the outset, we cannot overlook all aspects of the event.  Certainly, slavery was a brutal experience that is impossible to fully recreate.  However, by incorporating the ADACI the Hampton National Historic Site also celebrated the heritage and strength of the enslaved people who labored at Hampton.

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