Voices from the Past

Henry Louis Gates. Jr

We recently reached a significant milestone in the development of the Oxford African American Studies Center when we added the 500th primary source document to our collection. While the bulk of AASC's content consists of biographies of prominent black Americans, primary sources serve as an essential way of connecting modern scholarship with the voices of people from the past. These letters, legal documents, statistics, reports, short stories, and pamphlets help to illuminate the African American experience. This milestone coincides with the addition of a new set of documents focused exclusively on the inspiring and often misunderstood issue of slave resistance—the acts of protest, disobedience, and occasional violence that enslaved African Americans used against their masters.

In many ways, primary sources have "come to the rescue," so to speak, of a topic that, for many years, had been monopolized by historians who were interested in downplaying the deliberate brutality and incidental cruelty of the system of slavery, as well as the role that African Americans played in its downfall. Read any book on the topic published before the 1970s, and chances are that you will find a description of efficient plantations run by well-meaning but misguided masters, where the overwhelming majority of slaves served docilely until they were at last emancipated by noble Union soldiers. Among the most influential of these books was Life and Labor in the Old South, a Pulitzer-prize winning work by Ulrich B. Philips that portrayed the traditional plantation in glowingly paternalistic terms. The yeoman's work of debunking this idyllic description is only a few decades old, and some of the most important primary sources used in this effort have been written by the slave masters themselves. To take just one example from our collection: the set of laws passed in the state of North Carolina alone reveal the heightened paranoia among Southern elites regarding the nuisance of runaway slaves and the ever-present threat of a full-scale insurrection. In the first half of the 19th century, slave owners continuously lobbied for greater government control over their property, as evidenced by this petition to the North Carolina general assembly in 1830 (see, for example, this document). In response to this and numerous other complaints, the assembly passed a series of increasingly draconian laws establishing a fugitive-catching militia, controlling the movement of slaves, and curtailing the legal rights of blacks. In short, slave resistance was so pervasive that the only viable response was to create a police state.

But, of course, there are also a number of letters, reports, journal entries, and other documents written by the slaves themselves that expose the system as mired in a state of permanent antagonism between slaves and masters. The confessions of Denmark Vesey's co-conspirators, the narrative of James Fisher, and the testimony of insurrectionist Solomon Prosser are as terrifying in their implications of violence as they are inspiring in their demonstration of individual courage and determination. Other sources, such as this letter by Martha Glover, reveal the everyday acts of resistance slaves employed. And, when the Civil War finally began, fugitive slaves played an important role in providing logistical support to Union soldiers, an activity that never ceased to frustrate Confederate military leaders (see, for example, this and this). Far from passively waiting for relief from abolitionists, African Americans were active in their efforts to emancipate themselves.

The discussion of these collective efforts has extended beyond the field of history to other disciplines as well. Political scientist Melissa Harris-Perry, the subject of a recent interview on AASC, writes in her book Sister Citizen about the myth of "mammy," the docile and loyal black maid. Believe it or not, there was once a bill in the US Congress calling for the construction of a statue of "mammy" as a tribute to the nurturing relationship between servants and wealthy Southern white families. Harris-Perry sees in this the same romanticizing of the past that has distorted the legacy of slavery well into the 21st century, and contributed to negative stereotypes of black women. In another field—biblical studies—Vincent Wimbush has used the archetype of the runaway slave—what he refers to as a "runagate"—as a vehicle for exploring themes of identity, conflict, and redemption within Scripture.

But, while the academic community has, for the most part, moved beyond the simplistic descriptions used by Phillips and others, there is still a need to incorporate these stories of rebellion into the broader American narrative. When was the last time, for example, you heard the participants of a slave revolt spoken of in the same terms as the members of the Boston Tea Party? How often has the word "patriot" been used to describe abolitionists and members of the Underground Railroad? They were certainly fighting for the same principles as the nation's founders, and, in many cases, at far greater risk to themselves. And while there are many films, novels, and television shows glorifying American soldiers and other heroes, relatively few do the same for runaway slaves and insurrectionists. Historians still have much work to do to bring these stories into the national consciousness. Meanwhile, more voices from the past, found in primary source documents, are still waiting to be rediscovered.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Editor in Chief
Oxford African American Studies Center
The Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University
May 2012