William L. Andrews, Slavery and Class in the American South: A Generation of Slave Narrative Testimony, 1840-1865 (New York: Oxford UP, 2019), 408 pp.
In his latest book, Slavery and Class in the American South, William Andrews, an accomplished scholar of African American literature in general and slave narratives in particular, directs his attention to discussions of class in narratives of formerly enslaved African Americans. Based on close readings of all the sixty-one slave narratives published in antebellum America between 1840 and 1865, Andrews’s goal is to highlight the “class-inflected language” (15) in order to demonstrate how Black Americans conceived of the complex nature of privilege, status, and caste during their former enslavement. Slave narratives, a male dominated genre, were extremely popular in mid-nineteenth century America, and they do not only tell their readers about the limited and unequal distribution of privileges and status among the enslaved, but also the ways in which class mattered between Blacks and poor Southern whites.
Andrews’s book begins by exploring the ways in which class is addressed in the slave narratives. Social distinctions were given expression in terms such as “aristocratic slaves,” referring to slaves of a higher social status who were seen as superior or acted superior towards the “‘ordinary slaves.’” Quite often, those who were perceived as privileged were urban slaves, or domestic / house slaves, whereas agricultural workers or field hands were regarded as less privileged and of a lower social status. Privileges could be personal recognition, an elevated social status because of skills and working performance, a certain degree of agency and freedom, the opportunity for economic improvement, such as hiring out, etc. The author is careful to point out, however, that the privileges few slaves were granted were real, yet limited and could be revoked anytime, especially for “offenses” such as acting “impudent,” “insolent,” or appearing to be “too proud” (233). But the slave narratives give testimony to the fact that these privileges were crucial for the enslaved sense of self; once they had achieved a certain status, all narrators claimed a determination to secure their freedom and emphasized their ambition and initiative. In this vein, the texts can be read as “upward mobility stories” that give testimony to social mobility despite slavery—an experience that the majority of “ordinary slaves” did not get the chance to have (See Robbins). Indeed, as Andrews demonstrates, many of the narrators, such as Martin R. Delany, Henry Bibb and Frederick Douglass, resorted to specific terminology such as “aristocrat,” “lady,” “gentleman,” “workingmen” or “free laborer,” but also “low white” and “ordinary slave” to articulate the social distinctions among Blacks and whites in the South and, in their narratives, they carefully chose to distinguish themselves from “ordinary slaves” (15).
Another source of pride and privileges for enslaved Black Americans was work, which might be surprising due to its coercive character under slavery. But similar to the privileges some slaves were endowed with, the narrators took pride in their work skills, which also resulted in an augmented sense of self. Vocational, skilled slaves were more likely to end up free; positions that came with an elevated status were driver and foremen on plantations, and many narrators who bought their freedom also became ministers, such as James W. C. Pennington, or important figures in the abolitionist movement, for example Lunsford Lane, Sally Williams (“Aunt Sally”), and William Wells Brown. Noting that slave narratives are thus one genre of American success stories, Andrews states: “More often than in the narratives of any other group of former slaves, the careers of these highly skilled, often entrepreneurial, workers while enslaved anticipate the self-emancipated slave’s rise in the North from a lower to a higher class” (81). Yet while enslaved, the elevated social status that some authors of slave narratives had, also added to their hardship since they had to negotiate a difficult position between their master and mistress on the one hand, and the larger slave community on the other. Domestic slaves, while they often had access to better clothing and food and were better accommodated, also suffered from social isolation, separation from family, emotional exhaustion because of constant supervision, and especially female slaves were exposed to a heightened vulnerability to suffer from sexual violence. Andrews’s discussion of domestic slaves and field slaves is a familiar one to historians of American slavery. What is intriguing, though, is how enslaved African Americans consciously worked with these class differences when planning their escape. Many practiced “class passing” when fleeing in order to be perceived as a “free colored gentleman” instead of a rural slave and dressed and acted accordingly (121-23).
In an insightful chapter on class conflicts among poor whites and enslaved Blacks, Andrews analyzes how the authors of slave narratives addressed the class differences among Southern whites and wrote about poor Southerners in their texts. These poor whites (“low-life whites” 198) often worked as overseers, patrollers, and slave catchers and were, unsurprisingly, deeply resented by the enslaved. Poor whites, in turn, were resentful of slaves whom they felt were better clothed and fed than they could afford, despite their status as free men. Yet, as Andrews points out, poor whites saw Blacks as class enemies and detested their competition on the labor market, which effectively prevented any organizing on the basis of class. Indeed, few narrators mention class alliances between poor whites and slaves (187). Andrews ascribes the lack of empathy towards poor whites among the narrators to their anger due to cruel treatment they received from white overseers, but he also could have addressed the question why poor whites, who suffered under the slaveocracy too, chose to identify with their whiteness instead of their lower social position. Curiously absent from this chapter is a discussion that conceptualizes class in relation to race, or any reference to intersectionality. This might have added insights to the nuanced and sometimes contradictory ways in which race and class worked interdependently, especially with regard to the distribution of power and privileges (or lack thereof) among poor whites and African American slaves in the antebellum South. The last chapter of Slavery and Class looks at fugitives and escape narratives, and discusses fugitives as “superior slaves” (213) who had the ambition, the skills, and the means to escape. Yet, the author does not address class, status, or privilege in his discussion, leaving the reader to wonder how this chapter connects to the previous ones.
The book demonstrates Andrews’s impressively detailed knowledge of slave narratives, some of them have been analyzed extensively elsewhere, while others have generated much less scholarly attention. In the midst of numerous detailed examples, the author sometimes loses sight of the concept of class and a larger historical argument. Still, he admiringly succeeds in highlighting differences in social status and class among enslaved African Americans and insightfully discusses how the parameters of distinction informed the narrators’ sense of themselves and their views on slavery and the enslaved population of the American South.
Silke Hackenesch (Universität zu Köln)