Black Magic - Peter Rachleff

Peter Rachleff reviews George Rawick's From Sundown to Sunup for issue #4 of Root & Branch, a U.S. libertarian socialist journal. Published in 1973.
The full book is available on libcom.org here.

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on March 11, 2022

George P. Rawick, The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Vol. I: From Sundown to Sunup; The Making of the Black Community, Greenwood Press, Westport, Conn., 1972, $2.95.

This book is undoubtedly one of the finest volumes yet to appear in the area of American social history. Its contribution to an understanding of American society is two-fold: 1) It is the most insightful and penetrating analysis of slavery now available, and 2) its methodology can serve as a fruitful model for future studies of other aspects of this society, be they of an historical or a contemporary nature. Due to its function as the introduction to nineteen volumes of slave narratives (upon which it draws for its interpretation of slavery), there is a great danger that it will become known only to scholars and academicians, becoming safely encapsulated within the walls of university libraries or professors’ offices. In this brief review l hope to demonstrate the importance of this book -- as well as its weaknesses -- for all who hope to change American society and recognize the need to understand its complexity as a step toward its transcendence.

Rawick's introductory remarks offer us a critique of the majority of previous analyses of American history and society and suggest some fresh directions in which we should head in our efforts to understand the dynamics of American society which both maintain it and indicate the possibilities of its revolutionary transformation. Our entire focus must change. Mainstream and “radical” historians have, for the most part, shared a common approach to their subject matter. That is, for them,

the history of American society has been subordinated to the history of the American state; the reality of the American people has been subordinated to the history of industrial technology, of capitalism, and of related values and institutional arrangements. (p. xiii)

Such an approach is seriously inadequate for understanding the dynamics of our society. Although it may offer us a penetrating analysis of how the bourgeoisie rules (e.g., Miliband, The State in Capitalist Society), it cannot contribute to a comprehension of the internal contradictions, class conflict, and the growing potentiality for self-transformation existing at the heart of American society. As such tendencies develop more fully, a new approach is demanded by the course of events itself. “In a world consistently racked with disorder, few things are more precious than a sense of method enabling us to see the same world with new vision.” (W. Gorman, “Black History,” The South End, Jan.18, 1972, p. 4). Rawick's contribution to a methodology for such an undertaking is immense, providing the reader with such a “new vision”, one of how the masses -- in this case, the slaves -- who have been primarily portrayed as the passive objects of ruling class manipulation, sought collectively to confront their social situation and develop new institutions and strengths which enabled them to resist their oppression and support individual and collective acts of rebellion.

He also stresses -- quite rightly -- the need to come to grips with black history if we are to understand American society as a whole. Indeed, the “proletariat” is neither all white, nor we should add, all male, and until we comprehend the socio-historical situation of blacks and women and its relation to society in general and the rest of the working class in particular, our understanding of the dynamics at work within American society must remain fragmentary.

Black history in the United States must be viewed as an integral, if usually antagonistic, part of the history of the American people. Without understanding the historical development of black society, culture, and community, comprehension of the totality of America’s development is impossible. (p. xiii)

A further general point made at the outset of this book may, if true, have very serious ramifications for existing theories of social change. Rawick discusses the process by which new cultures and “new people” develop out of existing cultures and personality structures. By no means does a revolution mean that we can immediately start anew with a clean slate. Rather,

[i]Culture and personality are not like old clothes that can be taken off and thrown away. The ability of anyone to learn even the simplest thing is dependent upon utilizing the existing cultural apparatus. “New” cultures emerge out of older cultures gradually and never completely lose all traces of the old and the past. Human society is a cumulative process in which the past is never totally obliterated. Even revolutions do not destroy the past. Indeed, at their best, they liberate that which is alive from that which stifles human progress, growth, and development. Culture is a historical reality, not an ahistorical, static abstraction.

This book can be understood as an argument that “black culture” and the “black community” developed as a new social form out of the old society, slavery in the American South. Rawick’s attempt to understand slavery is unique. He neither chastizes any group involved or glorifies anyone -- slaves, slaveholders, poor whites, abolitionists. Rather, he seeks to portray their interaction and the contribution of such interaction to the development of the black community, He starts out this effort by necessarily focusing on aspects of slavery which have hitherto been misunderstood by traditional analysis.

The emphasis throughout this work will be on the creation of the black community under slavery, a process which largely went on outside of work relations. Up until now the focus in the discussion of American slavery has been on what went on from sunup to sundown. It is hoped that this work will shift the emphasis to the full life of the slaves, to those aspects of their reality in which they had greater autonomy than at work. While from sunup to sundown the American slave worked for another and was harshly exploited, from sundown to sunup he lived for himself and created a behavioral basis which prevented him from becoming the absolute victim. (p. xix)

Rawick rejects all the present theories concerning slavery -- 1) the myth that the slaves were well-treated and happy; 2) the notion that slaves were “dehumanized victims, without culture, history, community, change, or development” (p. 3); and 3) that “slavery was so bad that the slaves were almost always plotting insurrection or actually at the barricades,” (p. 54) Rather, relying on the slave narratives, which “enable us to see maltreatment of slaves within the context of the total life of the slaves, who, while oppressed and exploited, were not turned into brutalized victims, but found enough social living space to allow them to survive as whole human beings.” Rawick contends that “there were certain areas of autonomy carved out by the slaves in a situation which usually produced neither absolute victims nor instand revolutionaries.” (p. 55) What developed was the black community, which enabled the slaves to deal with their daily existence and to resist their oppression. “This reality of community was the major adaptive process for the black man in America.” (p. 10) How was this black community formed?

Rawick stresses the importance of African cultural traditions. Indeed, much of the text is devoted to a discussion of their nature and their transformation under slavery. However, it must be recognized that there was not merely one culture involved, but several.

Slaves in the U.S. had come from many different African cultures. They were thus faced with the difficult task of adjusting not only to their new environment and their new social relationships, but also to each other: they had to build a culture out of the interactions of Africans with other Africans. Therefore, while all Africans were slaves and slaves were supposed to act in a specific way, none knew what that way was. There was no model to follow, only one to build . . . (p. 8)

Moreover, these traditions were not simply retained, but were transformed to meet the new social situation which confronted the slaves. They were utilized -- out of necessity -- as the foundation for new modes of behavior and new institutional arrangements. “We will not look for the simple retention of African traits, but rather seek out the processes whereby one set of cultural tools was used to build other, more adequate tools. A living people does not carry the past on its back if it is able to transcend it in order to meet the present and prepare for the future.” (p. 30) These African traditions have been systematically ignored by historians ever since white people began studying slavery. In fact, until the recent rebirth of black awareness, they were largely unknown among black people as well. “The heritage of racism had nowhere more obscured reality than in this area of an image of the African past.” (p. 14) Rawick presents us with a picture of this past reality. Firstly, he attacks the myth that Africans made good slaves because they were used to being slaves to other Africans before the arrival of the Europeans. There was slavery in West Africa, but it was qualitatively different from the chattel slavery of North America. Slaves in Africa were treated as servants and often had full human and political rights. They were never dehumanized to the point of becoming merely a piece of property. However, interaction with the Europeans led to an increased demand for slaves which was met primarily by waging war and raiding other tribes for captives. Also, political opponents were sold into slavery. Those who had been slaves in the first place were seldom sold to the Europeans. Rawick goes on to destroy the myth that Africans were imported because they made such “good” slaves -- that the native Indian population was "nobler and prouder and braver in their opposition.” The question really boils down to the nature of the society from which the potential slave was taken. Those who came from “self-sufficient subsistence economies without elaborate social structures and state forms” often made poor slaves (many Africans shared this background with the native Indians) because

more than the whip of a master is required to make a slave work regularly. There must be an integral social organization of work and the constant internalization of values and attitudes conducive to work, an internalization that both comes from and reinforces traditions of daily, steady, regular work on a co-operative basis but with a need and room for individual initiative. (p. 27)

Those West Africans from more complex societies were thus more accustomed to such a social structure and organization of work and thus were more capable of adaptation. However, Rawick emphasizes that they were far from quiescent. In fact, slaves with such backgrounds were often the leaders of revolts. Here he gives an example of a dialectical analysis, arguing that the slave personality must be viewed as a unity of opposites. “After all,” Rawick states, “accomodation is not antithetical to rebellion; indeed it is rebellion by other means.” (p. 28) He develops ths argument more fully in his chapter “Master and Slave: Resistance,” drawing also on the work of Franz Fanon.

Unless the slave has a tendency to be Sambo he can never become Nat Turner. One who has never feared becoming Sambo, never need to maintain his humanity. Unless we understand the contradictory nature of the rebel personality, we can never portray this reality. (pp. 95-6)

Religion played a vital part in this development of community. In this area, the importance of West African culture is clear: religion was not “otherworldly” in that “there was no distinction between sacred and secular activities… For people from such a world, religious activities were areas of considerable potential creativity and social strength. The slaves in the New World used religion as the central area for the creation and re-creation of community.” (p. 32) Rawick recognizes how much such statements seem to deviate from Marxist orthodoxy and he thus attempts to elaborate further the complexity of the problem. “While religion certainly may at times be an opiate, the religion of the oppressed usually gives them the sustenance necessary for developing a resistance to their own oppression.” (p. 33) The religion discussed here is not that foistered on the slaves by their owners, but of their own cultural background. As the attempted suppression by slaveholders of such autonomous expressions of religion on the part of the slaves is depicted, it becomes clear that the owners themselves perceived such behavior as a threat to their hegemony. From the narratives it is apparent that “the slaves understood the official religion was being used as a method of social control and it is clear that for many slaves it simply didn’t work.” (p. 36) Black religion, due to its thisworldliness and its function as a mode of self-expression and self-development, played a crucial role in the formation of the community.

Because the black religious expression contained the most significant forms of black culture in North America, the form which most preserved the West African impulse and identity, it provided the basis for an independent struggle against slavery and racism. It was out of the religion of the oppressed, the damned of the earth, that came the daily resistance to slavery, the significant slave strikes, and the Underground Railway, all of which constantly wore away at the ability of the slave masters to establish their own pre-eminent society. (p. 51)

Such a picture of the role of black religion during slavery may help us better understand the complex role played in the struggles of the last two decades by black clergymen, who have served both as the embodiment of the genuine desires of black people for a better life here on earth and as a means of channelling such desires in non-revolutionary directions.

Rawick attacks “the myth that slaves had no normal, significant family life, that for the most part they lived promiscuously, jumbled all together, with no male having a regular relationship with his children. (p. 78) Rather than providing a picture of promiscuity and irresponsibility, the narratives indicate that “the Afro-American family under slavery was part of a distinct, viable, black culture, adapted to slavery and deprivation.” (p. 79) The nature of the family under slavery was a further means to develop institutions to support daily life and resistance, building the community. Moreover, by understanding this development of the family structure under slavery, we can better understand the contemporary forms of the black family.

The slave community acted like a generalized extended kinship system in which all adults looked after all children and there was little division between “my children for whom I'm responsible” and “your children for whom you're responsible.” I would suggest that such an extended kinship system was more functionally useful and integrative under the conditions of slavery under which both mother and father usually worked in the fields than would be one which emphasized the exclusive rights and duties of biological parents, the parents of the nuclear family. (p. 93)

The West African cultural traditions also provided models of folk characters who played major roles in the development of the community. The West African Anansi was a forefunner of the Afro-American Br'er Rabbit, who was utilized in the tales told by the slaves to their children as a means of self-expression and building up strength.

In myth and folktale the slave not only acted out his desires, he accomplished much more than that. In his laughter and pleasure at the exploits of Anansi or Br‘er Rabbit, he created for himself, out of his own being, that necessary self-confidence denied to him by so much of his environment. Anansi-Br'er Rabbit is both Sambo and Nat Turner, both the victim and the revolutionary, who manages to assert himself and his humanity and overcome his own inner victimization, the internalized reflection of his objective circumstances . . . These stories were part of the process by which the slaves gained enough footing to allow them to rebel. (p. 100)

These then were the major factors in the development of the black community -- various West African cultural traditions, familial network religion, folktales -- all functioned as modes of self-expression and interaction. Above all, they were means of carving out an autonomous social living space which allowed them to develop such a community and a set of institutions which provided “support and social confirmation” for acts of revolt and daily resistance by members and groups within that community. As Rawick writes:

“Either the oppressed continuously struggle in forms of their own choosing or they are defeated by life. Only they can know what they can and must do. The black community, slave and free, South and North, made itself, and in so doing brought about the abolition of slavery. It did this not out of a belief in ideological abstraction, but out of a felt inner necessity. (p. 96)

Slave revolts grew out of the development of this community, drawing courage and strength from its supportive function. Slaves and free blacks played vital roles in the abolitionist movement, the Underground Railway, and the Civil War. The black community was crucial in supporting and inspiring the activities of blacks and white Northerners against slavery. There were work stoppages, slowdowns, and sabotage among the slaves in the South, and some 200,000 fought in the Union Army. Rawick emphasizes that not only did blacks build their own community but that without their activity, in the various forms it took, their liberation could not have become a reality.

In the last part of the book, he develops a theory of the interconnection between the growth of racism and the spread of capitalism. He draws on notions from Winthrop Jordan (White Over Black), Reich (he Mass Psychology of Fascism, and Foucault (Madness and Civilization), in arguing that the rise of capitalism in Europe was accompanied by the repression of self-expression, sexuality, etc., in the name of rationality. Thus, when the Europeans first met West Africans they were struck more by the similarities of their lifestyles to those that they had once been accustomed to but were now denied -- i.e., subsistence farming, relatively unrepressed behavior and attitudes, etc. -- rather than any great differences.

The Englishman met the West African as a reformed sinner meets a comrade of his previous debaucheries. The reformed sinner very often creates a pornography of his former life. He must suppress even his knowledge that he has acted in that way or that he wanted to act that way. Prompted by his uneasiness at this great act of repression, he cannot leave alone those who live as he once did or as he still unconsciously desires to live. He must devote himself to their conversion or repression. (p. 132)

Such a situation was further exacerbated in the American South where whites had to confront and deal with blacks daily and where white women were the epitome of repressed sexuality. Racism cannot be explained then in vulgar economistic terms as a mere rationale for exploitation but can be better understood as the result of the confrontation of a culture formed with capitalist “rationality” with one as yet untouched by such development. This indicates to us that racism will not disappear with the nationalization or even the socialization of the means of production alone. Rather, its disappearance can only be concomitant with the total human liberation, the overthrowing of all forms of repression, both external and internal, which have grown out of the capitalist mode of production. The unified struggle of the working class for control of its own activity is the necessary starting point for such total liberation. As Marx wrote in the German Ideology:

. . . the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew. (p. 69)

Despite its contributions, there are some weak points in the book, particularly in Rawick's evaluation of the material at hand. He seems to interpret all self-activity as part of a revolutionary process, overlooking in this case the possible implications of, for instance, his use of the notion of “adaptation.” Indeed, the black community under slavery -- and now -- was and is supportive of individual and collective acts of rebellion. However, the community itself is structured more for adaptation -- that is, not assimilation or simple integration -- to American society, and, despite its serious differences in cultural tradition and sanctioned modes of behavior, its overall content need not be antithetical to the development of American capitalism. Today, the black community is allowed -- not without constant struggle -- considerable cultural autonomy as long as it allows the dominant economic institutions to further sink their tentacles into its very life-blood, to exploit its supply of labor-power and take advantage of its captive market. (c.f. Robert Allen, Black Awakening in Capitalist America for an analysis of the American corporate response to black cultural nationalism.) Thus, Rawick emphasizes the supportive function of the black community for the rebellious aspects of slave behavior without asking for example why the slaves didn't rise up en masse in the South when their masters were off fighting the war, but rather chose to “liberate” themselves through fighting in the Union Army or engaging in strikes and slowdowns. Such questions are of importance today, especially in light of the growing interest in “working class self-activity” within the structure of capitalist society. Such activity is of no small importance because of the knowledge and solidarity it can develop among workers. But it cannot be seen as revolutionary in and of itself. “Adaptation” through self-activity, the carving of a “social living space,” may be a necessary prerequisite for a sustained frontal attack on the capitalist system itself, but it is no substitute for it.

Pete Rachleff

Root & Branch No. 4 (1973), pp. 45-52