Eric V. Snow



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The Need for a Subordinate Class to Wear a Mask to Conceal Their Knowledge
The basic means by which the slaves (or members of any other subordinate class) resist their masters concerns denying superiors information that would aid their attempts to keep them in line. Wearing a mask accomplishes this end, in which the slave played a certain role and acted a certain way when onstage before his masters, but acted differently when just among members of his own group, or someone else perceived as being friendly. Subordinates present a common front against their masters by following a code of silence, thus purchasing common protection by doing so, as Georgia planter Charles C. Jones observed:
The Negroes are scrupulous on one point; they make common cause, as servants, in concealing their faults from their owners. Inquiry elicits no information; no one feels at liberty to disclose the transgressor; all are profoundly ignorant; the matter assumes the sacredness of a "professional secret": for they remember that they may hereafter require the same concealment of their own transgressions from their fellow servants, and if they tell upon them now, they may have the like favor returned the[n].
Once the Confederate troops in Rutledge's Mounted Rifles encountered slaves who gave them very friendly greetings. Later on, after the servant of one master and Confederate officer said not to trust them, he went back again, this time dressed as a Federal officer. He now found the slaves volunteered to aid the Union war effort: "Massa, you come for ketch rebels?" and "We show you whey you can ketch thirty tonight." They showed or pointed out to him the Rebel Camp, and added: "We kin ketch officer for you whenever you want'em." Masters and mistresses themselves knew their slaves dissembled in their presence, but found it hard to stop. Mary Boykin Chesnut sensed the ambition of Dick, the butler, who she had taught how to read when young, and who presently would not look her in the face as the South's fortunes plunged downwards in the summer of 1863:
He is the first Negro that I have felt a change in. They go about in their black masks, not a ripple or an emotion showing; and yet on all other subjects except the War they are the most excitable of all the races. Now Dick might make a very respectable Egyptian Sphynx, so inscrutably silent is he.572
Dissembling seriously restricted the slaveholders' attempts to control their human chattels, for individual slaves often withheld information in order to protect themselves as a group.
Early Training in Mask Wearing
Where and how was this behavior learned? Young slaves learned early on from their parents that they could not go around saying whatever first popped into their minds about some situation on their plantation or farm.573 Clearly a general dread and mistrust of whites developed among slaves, since the whites were the ones who could punish them, or turn them in when running away.574 David West, as a slave, was cheated out of a half bushel of grain out of a barrel's worth by a rich slaveholder. He had to consent to the unfair deal, because "he knew I would not dare say any thing about it,--the law was such that he could have me whipped, if I were to contradict him." When young, slaves learned the consequences of speaking their minds could easily be disastrous, even when they were definitely right. As ex-slave Lee Guidon of South Carolina recalled: "They didn't want the slaves talking 'bout things. One time I got ruffed up, and say I saw going to freedom . . . My ma put her hand over my mouth like this and say, 'You don't know anything 'bout what you saying, boy.'" When his father and other men made a break for freedom as a group, and the master went on the warpath, freedwoman Mary Grayson was told by her mother: "If any of you young-uns say anything about any strange men coming to our place I'll break your necks!" Harriet Brent Jacobs' son had secretly found out she was hidden away in the house he lived in, but never told anyone about it: "Such prudence may seem extraordinary in a boy of twelve years, but slaves, being surrounded by mysteries, deceptions, and dangers, early learn to be suspicious and watchful, and prematurely cautious and cunning." When Kemble praised London's character, noting he had thoroughly refused to reveal how he had learned to read, she complimented him by saying "besides his other good qualities, he appears to have that most unusual one of all in an uneducated person--discretion."575 Having come from a life of freedom in a free society, this statement shows she did not realize that slaves learned such habits early in life as survival strategies for enduring a system of oppression. The members of a subordinate class, especially one as tightly controlled as American slaves, naturally learn how to wear a mask and to develop "discretion," excepting for those slaves, mainly among the drivers and house servants, who throw in their lot with their masters and mistresses, and become spies for them.
The Costs of Being Open and Removing the Mask
When the mask did come off for some reason, perhaps because of an emotional explosion, dire consequences could result. Barrow narrates one case where a servant was whipped, although only twice lightly, because, according to his mother-in-law, "the girl forget herself [when being "saucey" one time] thought she was talking to negros A fine Compliment indeed." This domestic servant got off fairly lightly for her apparent carelessness. Enough experience with the high costs of freely and clearly expressing some of the thoughts contained in the hidden transcript were a sufficient reminder to wary. Freedwoman Annie Hawkins, once a slave in Georgia and Texas, had endured a particularly harsh master. When he died, she and her sister laughed, because "we was glad he was dead." Their mistress then whipped them with a broomstick, but the emotional release coming from venting one's feelings and beliefs openly "didn't make us sorry though." Similarly, ex-slave Fannie Moore's mother was whipped with a cowhide for declaring (in part): "I's saved. . . . I ain't gwine-a grieve no more. No matter how much you all done beat me and my children, the Lord will show me the way. And some day we never be slaves." Despite being punished, she still went back to the fields singing. Barrow whipped two slaves for lying to him. He said one of them, Margaret, he had never known her to do this before. Southern whites, even the mistresses and masters who were daily attended upon by black slaves, simply did not know their minds as well as they thought they did, since the slaves wished to avoid being punished. The slaves' masks systematically kept them in the dark, although more insightful ones among them, such as Chesnut, knew very well they routinely concealed many of their thoughts from their owners. Olmsted, after asking whether the slaves discussed freedom among themselves and whether it was done frequently, was told by one Louisiana slave that that was indeed the case: "Yes, sir. Dey--dat is, dey say dey wish it was so; dat's all dey talk, master--dat's all sir."576 Evidently, since Olmsted was neither a slaveholder nor a Southerner, this slave had let his mask down, calculating negative consequences were unlikely. For while a subordinate class has to wear a mask, the psychological pressure to reveal something in the hidden transcript creates continual temptations, because it always wants to speak "truth to power," but for prudential reasons its members normally refrain from doing so, or often do so anonymously or in deniable and semi-vague forms.
The Subordinate Class's Compulsions to Lie
Lying was routine aspect of wearing a mask for slaves, for telling the truth could become very costly for them in the here and now, even as their Christian beliefs told them its potential costs in the hereafter. One traveler challenged a slaveholder that he would catch a certain slave in a lie before he left, although the slaveholder said this slave, named John, never lied. He got the slave to open up a covered dish by telling him not to uncover it, after placing a mouse under it. It jumped away after he uncovered it, but he denied he had lifted the cover. Its disappearance proved John would lie, so the traveler commented, "See there, John been lying to you all the time, you just ain't knowed it." The comment by the slave telling this story is particularly telling: "And I reckon he right, 'cause us had to lie." Because the costs of the master's or overseer's hand coming down on them could be so high, slaves routinely lied in order to protect themselves. After a young slave who attended on her denied desiring freedom, Kemble said he did so because "he comprehended immediately that his expressing even the desire to be free might be construed by me into an offense, and sought, by eager protestations of his delighted acquiescence in slavery, to conceal his soul's natural yearning, lest I should resent it." For such reasons, her husband maintained that "it was impossible to believe a single word any of these people said."577
While such acts are understandable under the conditions of oppression they suffered under, maintaining double-mindedness on telling the truth always extracted a cost, for situational ethics that favor one's group or class as against another undermines the close calculations necessary in an economy and community based on economic credibility. This habit inflicted long run damage on the freedmen after emancipation and as old habits (understandable in the world of Reconstruction and the KKK) lingered. Employers in a capitalist economy need accurate information to successfully make profits, and naturally dislike hiring or dealing with those whose unwillingness to tell the truth in uncomfortable situations undermines the corporation's or company's profitability or ability to survive. Unquestionably, the roots of this practice lay in traditional African cultural custom, as European travelers and anthropologists discovered through cases where those telling lies had nothing to gain from deceiving another. It was regarded as a discourtesy to tell something to another person that he or she did not wish to hear, seeing human comfort as more important that telling what was strictly true--the motive behind many a "white lie" told today. As Genovese noted, after citing the case of a slave who felt he had "lied on himself" by saying nice things to a new relative of the white family:
[Those ethically torn] were struggling toward a morality necessary to function in a modern economy and society. To the extent that the exigencies of survival suffocated their impulses, they dealt crippling blows to the long-run prospects for the black community, while protecting it against its oppressors.
Condemning the slaves for their elastic morality remains difficult, as Kemble knew. After catching her cook Abraham in a lie about some missing mutton and getting repeated denials even though the truth was obvious, she commented: "Dirt and lying are the natural tendencies of humanity, which are especially fostered by slavery. Slaves may be infinitely wrong, and yet it is very hard to blame them."578
Why the Rituals of Deference Still Had Meaning
The behaviors and rituals of deference were another component of the mask the slaves wore before their masters in particular, and whites in general. As described above (pp. 316-17), these rituals are not without meaning even when the role-player rejects the ideology of the social system he or she is subordinated under and does not respect a particular member of the elite in actuality. The balancing act of paternalism involves getting the subordinate to be socially close enough to identify with the elite member and his interests, while simultaneously maintaining social distance between the two that can be lost by the daily close intimate contact--the "familiarity that breeds contempt." The physical acts of bowing, averting the eyes downward, touching the forelock, etc. allow the elite to maintain a type of "ceremonial purity" that "sanitizes" the "pollution" that comes from having close relationships with the subordinate class that might, without these rituals, lead to "uppity" servants and field hands.
Throughout the American South the slaves routinely ridiculously exaggerated these rituals to doubly demonstrate their apparent submission to their masters and mistresses. Kemble, who frequently was treated by large groups of slaves congregating around her to beg, petition, and plead almost as if she was the Messiah while staying at her husband's estates, knew full well how the slaves' desperation to secure her favor worked them up into pathetic scenes. Being an actress by trade, she could easily see how the slaves were playing a role before her.579 When on a walk with her husband, one slave coming towards them
halted, and caused us to halt straight in the middle of the path, when, bending himself down till his hands almost touched the ground, he exclaimed to [her husband], "Massa ----, your most obedient;" and then, with a kick and flourish altogether indescribable, he drew to the side of the path to let us pass, which we did perfectly shouting with laughter . . . so sudden, grotesque, uncouth, and yet dexterous a gambado never came into the brain or out of the limbs of any thing but a "niggar."
On the streets of Richmond, Virginia, Olmsted witnessed the blacks were often well dressed, which made him comment:
There was no indication of their belonging to a subject race, except that they invariably gave the way to the white people they met. Once, when two of them engaged in conversation and looking at each other, had not noticed his approach, I saw a Virginian gentleman lift his walking-stick and push a woman aside with it. . . . their manner to white people is invariably either sullen, jocose, or fawning.580
Olmsted personally experienced how these rituals of deference could create social distance undesirably. Once, when introduced to a respected black preacher and slave driver, he shook his hand, and said he was happy meeting him. "He seemed to take this for a joke, and laughed heartily." After Olmsted's friend made a slightly humorous comment, the preacher initially answered with some scriptural phrase, "but before he could say three words, began to laugh again, and reeled off like a drunken man--entirely overcome with merriment." After a further exchange, clearly not intended as a joke, where he staggered off laughing hard, Olmsted commented that he had really desired "to treat him respectfully, wishing to draw him into conversation; but he had got the impression that it was intended to make fun of him, and generously assuming a merry humour, I found it impossible to get a serious reply." This incident illustrates how a subordinate's acts of deference could serve as a mask, which might not seem at all to constitute "resistance," yet still protect him or her. The rituals of deference helped the slaves conceal their true thoughts from their masters and mistresses while simultaneously assuring their owners of their submissiveness. This slave preacher succeeded in evading a conversation that he thought judged threatening, while doing so in a way not seeming at all defiant. The social distance these rituals created also benefited to the slaves as a subordinate class, since after going through the required physical acts to put off their owners, being sufficiently appeased, may avoid further inquiries into their state of mind. They also could secure a hearing about a grievance from their master, when they acted highly submissively first.581 In a world dominated by unpredictably passionate whites in which the wrong look, comment, or gesture could lead to a whipping or even death, the slaves did what had to be done to survive, suffering much indignity in the process.

Elkins's "Sambo" Hypothesis and Its Problems
It is impossible to ignore Stanley Elkins's "Sambo hypothesis" and the torrent of historiographical ink unleashed in response to it, when considering the mask slaves wore. His thesis can be briefly stated thus: "Sambo," meaning slaves conforming to the stereotypical behaviors of being childlike, loyal but undependable, given to laziness, lies, and theft as well as silly talk full of exaggeration, really and commonly existed on American plantations. Since genetic factors cannot explain this stereotype, and Latin American slaveholders did not see their slaves in a similar manner, there must be something different about slavery in the United States that caused "Sambos" to exist. Due to a lack of powerful competing institutions such as the church and the crown that in Latin America held the planters' financial interests as entrepreneurs in check, American commercial capitalism created a "closed system" that cut off the slaves from contact with free society through (in particular) a legal system's slave codes that basically denied the humanity of the slaves and made emancipation relatively hard to obtain. The Nazi concentration camps during World War Two were a closed system that produced infantile behavior remarkably like that of "Sambo," with the inmates coming to personally identify with the SS guards due to the absolute power they wielded over them. A similar process is said to have occurred on American plantations, where young slaves would come to identify with the white master as the chief "significant other" in their lives, as a father figure to all his "black children." As a result, little serious resistance and hatred towards the white master and mistress existed. What brought Elkins' work such attention was its ingenious harnessing of psychological theory, in particular Sullivan's theory about the development of a sense of self based upon the expectations of certain powerful others (such as parents) in someone's life, to shed light on a historical controversy: Were the slaves as U.B. Phillips portrayed--lazy, lying, undependable, childlike "Sambos"--or as Stampp's "white men with black skin," continually full of schemes to resist their owners? Elkins' work, like Fogel and Engerman's Time on the Cross, has been subject to withering scrutiny from many angles. It problems will be only briefly surveyed here.582

The controversy over Elkins' thesis arises in connection to whether the slaves really were "Sambos" in personality, or did they role-play "Sambo," putting on a mask when onstage before the whites. Elkins's leading mistake comes from making a fairly close analogy between concentration camps and plantations. The main purpose for one was to kill people while the other was to exploit people, most of whom had to stay alive in order to profitably raise cash crops. While slaveholders did hold immense power over their black subjects, their purposes in using it were very different from the SS guards', whose basic objective was to kill off prisoners by methods both quick and slow. Personality-bending, "brain-washing" effects only take effect in extreme cases where the dominant group is not just out to control the subordinates to profitably exploit them, but are bent in a night-and-day task to extinguish any possible crevice in which the subordinates could carve out their own social sites away from the surveillance of their superiors or any other kind of freedom. Only in cases such as the Chinese P.O.W. camps Americans were kept during the Korean War or hostages held by terrorists for a long period ("the Stockholm syndrome") does the subordinate class begin to be "brainwashed" into "loving master" and accept uncritically wholesale the ideology of the dominant group. In total institutions such as asylums and prisons for common criminals, personality bending does not occur--situations much more analogous to slavery. Slaveholders were not out to destroy every vestige of freedom of the slaves as such, which would impractically consume enormous effort in surveillance time and money, but to obtain the sufficient ("optimum") amount of submission necessary to profitably raise crops. As Fogel and Engerman noted: "'Perfect submission' was the rhetorical position of the master class, not its practical objective."583
The flaw in Elkins' use of Sullivan's theory about significant others lay in failing to see the other roles slaves play in their daily lives beyond the one played before the white master and overseer. They had significant others in their lives besides the whites exercising authority over them. In the course of a day or week, a slave might be principally acting as a husband or wife, a mother or father, an aunt or uncle, a daughter or son, a brother or sister, a friend, a worker, a buyer and seller, etc. By seeing how poor whites and/or free blacks lived, perhaps in some cases working with them side by side, or even how their white master's and/or overseer's family lived, they knew practically how free people lived, as Davis observed. The social space given in particular by family life, and the quarters generally, prevented any over-identification with the white master, over and above the social distance produced by the rituals of deference. Clearly, "alternative forces for moral and psychological orientation" did exist for the slaves, allowing for the development of conscious accommodation and an autonomous personality beneath the front slaves put up before their owner. The Elkins thesis's biggest hurdle lay in denying slaves used their mask of deference to accomplish their goals against the elite. If "Sambo" was a mask put on to deceive the master, such as by feigning stupidity or clumsiness they could evade working or answering probing questions, it just as easily came off when among just those of their own social group, and not be who they really were. As one insightful planter wrote in 1837:
The most general defect in the character of the Negro, is hypocrisy; and this hypocrisy frequently makes him pretend to more ignorance than he possesses; and if the master treats him as a fool, he will be sure to act the fool's part. This is a very convenient trait, as it frequently serves as an apology for awkwardness and neglect of duty.
The level of violence slaveholders routinely employed demonstrates that "Sambo" was a mask, certainly not the general reality, for American slaves. Also, as Lewis observed:
To view compliance as a convenient mechanism employed by several generations would necessarily destroy [Elkins'] assumption of the slave's internalization of the "Sambo" role. Consequently, the possibility that conformity and compliance might be extorted without significant personality distortion is not considered. If the "Sambo" role were internalized then the use of force would not have been as prevalent as the literature reveals.
The slaveholding elite did not always see their slaves as Sambos, and indeed had to be selectively inattentive to real slaves' behavior and misinterpreting what they did observe to propagate this stereotype. Blassingame sees the persistent plague of conspiracy and revolt panics that periodically swept through the white community as showing that it saw slaves also as deceitful Nats, concealing bloodthirsty desires for revenge behind a compliant obedient exterior. Ultimately, Elkins' more extreme version of hegemony, in which not just the beliefs but the personality of the slaves are shaped and molded by their masters in the latter's desired image, hits the same rocks Genovese's model of slaves' accepting and adapting paternalism and Fogel and Engerman's view of slaves becoming imbued with the Protestant work ethic do, with its failure merely being easier to prove. The semi-autonomy that slaves achieved individually through role-playing a mask and collectively through their culture (especially in their religion) refutes any overarching thesis of successful hegemonic incorporation on a mass scale.584
An Act of Routine Resistance: Stealing
One of the biggest management headaches masters and mistresses faced was theft of their property by some of the rest of it. Slaves stole above all food--corn, pork, hogs, chickens, fruit, even pumpkins--all were fair game. Money, household possessions, even cotton were also "appropriated."585 Once Barrow complained: "My negroes or some others are determined we shall not have any Chickens." Field hands faced greater temptations to steal than house servants, because the latter generally benefited from the white family's leftovers. The slaveholders' general response to their slaves stealing was predictable. They watched to detect and prevent thievery, and punished those caught. Barrow whipped a number of slaves who stole from him, including field hands for hogs that turned up missing and house servants who broke into his storeroom. One day he stopped three--probably not his own--from going to town to sell cornmeal. He set up a nightly patrol to catch chicken thieves, and had standing orders for a night watch of "two or more men. they are answerable of all trespasses committed during their watch, unless they produce the offender. or give immediate alarm." He also prohibited his slaves from selling anything "without my express permission" partly because they "would be tempted to commit robberies to obtain things to sell."586 Prohibiting slaves from selling goods was a measure designed to undermine the illicit traffic through which poor whites would encourage slaves to steal hogs, corn, cotton, or other agricultural produce to exchange for liquor or money. This black market was a major problem for planters and farmers throughout the South.587 Ex-slaves Joseph Sanford and John Warren confirmed these practices, the former describing how a cowhide was applied on him for taking some salt from his Virginian master's house, while the latter said "the white folks down south [he was a slave in Mississippi] don't seem to sleep much, nights. . . . They listen and peep to see if any thing has been stolen, and to find if any thing is going on."588
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