Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World Slaves Made. New York: Random House, 1972.
Southern historian Eugene D. Genovese explores antebellum slavery in the South in this ambitious work Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. Genovese found that slaves in the South were a vibrant force that not only survived but also created a separate African American national identity that formed the basis of their modern culture. Genovese’s book is about how the slave society’s social order operated, and how slaves used their human nature to shape an unfair system to make life livable, even if it had momentous costs.
Genovese was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York to a working-class Italian family. He was active in the Communist youth movement and was a self-proclaimed Marxist. His Marxist ideals are peppered throughout Roll, Jordan, Roll but do not overshadow the story. The author is considered one of the most influential historians in the American slavery field. He is a graduate of Brooklyn College with advanced degrees from Columbia University. Genovese taught at Rutgers University, the University of Rochester, The College of William & Mary, Emory University, along with a few others.
Roll, Jordan, Roll is widely regarded as essential reading by historians of the American slave era and was a winner of the Bancroft Prize in History. In 2005, he co-authored a book with his wife Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, The Mind of the Master Class; History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview.
Being an avowed Marxist from the beginning of his career, Genovese publicly supported the Viet Cong in the 1960s and was the center of a widely publicized academic free-speech debate. He was also the first president of The Organization of American Historians to be Marxist. By the 1990s, Genovese had become disillusioned by Marxism, both intellectually and politically. He then made the decision to join his wife in converting to Roman Catholicism. Together, he and his wife founded The Historical Society to better keep ideology out of historical studies.
Genovese argued that in America, African Americans and whites may be viewed as a nation within a nation, but because of their common history, it guaranteed that they are both American. His study then, centered on the distinctive kind of paternalism between slave and slaveholders in the South, and part one of the books is devoted to understanding this better. This paternalism shaped not only the owners’ hegemony but also the slaves’ resistance. Genovese explains that paternalism does not lessen the cruelty or the insufferableness of slavery, nor did it come about out of benevolence as some older history books imply.
To ethically justify its system of exploitation, the South developed this Southern paternalism; much like the type of system used in the middle ages that dealt with the feudal relationship between lords and serfs. There were two distinctive factors that aided its development. Unlike their cousins in the Caribbean, most Southern slave owners lived on their plantation. This close proximity favored the growth of paternalism. Also, once slave trading closed, the slaveholders were forced to depend on their slaves for reproduction, which gave paternalism an economic impetus.
Paternalism basically described the involuntary labor of slaves as being balanced because the slaves had their masters’ protection and guidance. Paternalism was also seen as a moral victory for the slaves because it clearly implied mutual responsibilities. It recognized their humanity and put a govern on the slave owner’s authority. Slaves, having to continually endure racism that eroded their self-worth, acting consciously and unconsciously, began to convert paternalism into a protection of their own rights. “The slaves of the Old South displayed impressive solidarity and collective resistance to their masters, but in a web of paternalistic relationships their action tended to become defensive and to aim at protecting the individuals against aggression and abuse,” (p. 5) but this, in turn, undermined their solidarity and reduced the likelihood of a rebellion.
In part two, Genovese wrote a substantial amount about the importance of religion to slaves and that it was the center of slave resistance. Christianity for the slaves was a hodgepodge mix that was connected partially to the whites and also influenced by African traditions. Religion often closely resembled the master’s beliefs but held enough of their former world’s worship traditions that it shaped into a religious culture that was unique to them. Religion was intended to assure their compliance and docility, however, slaves used religion to declare their own rights and ideals as human beings. Christianity gave courage to the individual and burrowed deep an awareness, that there was actually limits to their submission.
Slaves were able to use religion as a way of putting order to their world. Some slaveholders witnessed the power of slave services and feared that the intensity of their religion might actually unify them enough to rebel. Some slaveholders would make a white man preach about Christianity’s teachings on the importance of submission at the services. This and other methods proved completely ineffectual in stopping the slaves from forming their own practice of Christianity.
Christianity softened the moral terrain embedded in their minds that masters were the highest authority. Now they would have a heavenly master above all else. Slaves were immured in bondage, but through faith, the gap between slave and master narrowed considerably. The foundations that were being built gave the individual slave the ability to embrace that which was worthy of themselves. Genovese states that Christianity blocked the development of political consciousness. Similar to paternalism, religion may have empowered slaves in some areas but it helped to keep them in the existing system, one of defense and not rebellion.
Book three details the different classes or castes slaves put themselves in when ordering their lives. Mulattoes, though not always, were preferred for housework and eventually “acquired certain cultural advantages that made them more presentable to upper-class white society.” (p. 328) There were some slaves who, when given the choice between field work and working in the “Big House”, chose the fields. They knew that possible humiliation awaited them in the master’s home from the more refined servants already working there.
Genovese spends much time dissecting the relationships between slave men and their wives, mothers to their children, and the children themselves. Slave men purportedly had “little sense of responsibility toward their families,” (p. 482) and would abuse them to a degree that the master or overseer would have to step in and protect the wives and children. The women did not always want such intervention outside of her family and friends. The women who worked in the fields usually had a longer day than the men. On their own time, they must cook, clean, and rear the children. Slave women could be seen working the fields with a child strapped to her body; no break for the tired mother. Not surprising, a high infant mortality rate amongst the slaves was normal. Children, before the age of eight, would mostly look after their homes or younger siblings or be given small tasks appropriate to their size. Age’s eight to twelve was considered their breaking in time, and they would help with things around the master’s house, gardening, or taking water to the field hands. Some masters would work children tirelessly despite their age.
The last part, or book four, concludes with the various ways that slaves would rebel against their masters. Several methods were used, some with better results than others; physical confrontation, armed revolts, theft, arson, and running away. Genovese argues that slaves knew and understood what their pecuniary value was to the masters and would affect sickness to directly cause financial hardship to the plantation. Thus far the author gives an impressive amount of evidence and credentials to uphold several of his arguments, however, this seemed slightly more of an assumption on his part. It is difficult to trust that the slaves knew their value to such an extent, that they would hit at their masters primarily to cause economic stress.
Genovese makes a compelling case of masters being so obligated by the system of paternalism, but this is still no excuse for the practice of slavery. The slaves can be esteemed for their perseverance to not only survive but “in shaping an organic master-slave relationship unfolded under objectively unfavorable military and political circumstances that compelled a different course.” (p. 587) At times Genovese seems to express his belief that slaves were, in general, a contented lot with a kind of push and pull power struggle between themselves and their masters. However, at the end of part four, he makes clear that he believes the perception of a contented slave, much like historian Ulrich Bonnell Phillips’ book Southern Honor supported, is complete rubbish.
Roll, Jordan, Roll may at times seem to rely too heavily on the author’s supposition and not enough factual particulars, yet it is unarguably an imaginative, well-written work. Genovese has contributed greatly on encapsulating the impact slavery had and the influence that bondage created. Though occasionally repetitious, Genovese produced a book that scholars and laypersons alike will discuss and debate for years to come.
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