Understanding Slavery: The Lives of 18th-Century African-Americans

South Carolina SC African-Americans Understanding Slavery Lives of 18th-Century African-Americans

Slavery. The very term inspires revulsion, embarrassment, anger, and humiliation. For many people, their first real understanding of African-American slavery came with reading Alex Haley's Roots, or watching its adaptation to television. Too often textbooks and history classes are silent, discussing slavery only passively.

Yet, the history of South Carolina is inexorably intertwined with slavery. Everything on the plantation – the roads, the buildings, the fences, the gardens, the crops – were the result of African-American sweat and blood. There likely would be no South Carolina history were it not for the labors of the African-Americans brought to these shores in slave ships.

In South Carolina were concentrated many of the richest planters in the United States – and the greatest number of slaves. The planters' perceived economic and political interests substantially shaped the policy of South Carolina and, in turn, affected the history of our nation. South Carolina played a premier role in the defense of slavery.

Slavery continues to shape American life – more so than many blacks, or whites, might like to admit. It must be understood if we wish to understand our history.

Yet even historians have not always been successful at coping with slavery. Ulrich Phillips, writing in 1918 for a white audience, was afraid to criticize the remnant Southern gentry in his book, American Negro Slavery. Instead he claimed that slavery helped civilize "savage" Africans, ignoring the fullness of African culture. Later, in the late 1950s, Kenneth Stampp's Peculiar Institution coincided with the birth of the civil rights movement and his writing has been characterized as having the "suppressed passion of a liberal scholar." More recently, Eugene Genoveses's Roll, Jordan, Roll, written in the 1970s, offers a celebration of black cultural resistance. Each offers a very different view of slavery.

Beginning in the late 1970s archaeologists began to realize that there was much to learn about African-American slavery and that archaeology might offer the best hope of achieving a new and different view.

One of the problems with history is that the African-American slaves are "invisible people." History is written by the literate and the wealthy. This means, in Southern society, history has most commonly been written by the plantation owners – wealthy white men. Their concern with black slaves was largely limited to economic issues – How much did a slave cost? How long did a slave live? How many children might a slave have? How much food had to be allocated for slaves? Rarely do we see anything in the plantation diaries or records that helps us understand how slaves lived.

Further, conventional historical accounts can be easily distorted, either intentionally or even unknowingly. So slave owners might not always be telling us the truth in their plantation accounts.

Archaeology, on the other hand, provides us with a better means of understanding the lives of African-American slaves. Not only does archaeology specialize in understanding the lives of the people being studied, but it is harder to distort these lifeways. Archaeology, however, is certainly not perfect. Many things, such as kinship or religion, leave little evidence for the archaeologist. Some artifacts, such as basketry, may quickly decay. Other evidence may be misunderstood. And, of course, many archaeological sites are never even studied – some are thoughtlessly destroyed, while others are just never found.

By combining history and archaeology, however, it is possible to better understand how African-American slaves lived here in South Carolina. and by better understanding slavery we can dispel a lot of the myths and come to terms with our past.


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