On William L. Andrews’ Slavery and Class in the American South

William L. Andrews
Slavery and Class in the American South: A Generation of Slave Narrative Testimony, 1840-1865 
(Oxford University Press, 2019, 389 pp., $26.95)

With Slavery and Class in the American South, William L. Andrews continues to plumb the nuances of the slave narrative genre for revelatory insights into African American literature and history, a project to which he has devoted his scholarly career. This latest title investigates the “intraracial as well as interracial social dynamics of slavery” as represented in sixty-one slave narratives authored by fifty-two individuals and produced in the quarter century between 1840 and 1865 (22). This period, recognized as the international heyday of the genre, features authors who had experienced a considerable period of enslavement in the American South before escaping to publish their accounts as fugitives or freed men and women in the North. Andrews’ study hinges on an inquiry into class concerning both “horizontal, intraracial social relationships” between enslaved African Americans of varying social standing in the hierarchy of slave labor and “vertical interracial power relationships” between slaves and their white counterparts – including both slaveholders and poor whites – in the antebellum South (9).

 

Spanning four chapters and an epilogue, Slavery and Class reveals the ubiquity of social distinctions and class awareness within and throughout the selected slave narratives. Andrews illustrates the extent to which notions of privilege, social status, and class mediated the experiences recounted in the narratives. These moments range from practical aspirations for respite from the horrific realities of slavery – better food, clothing, duties, safety, etc. – to more ambitious desires for economic agency and class advancement via liberation. Indeed, Andrews underscores the importance of social and class awareness to the enslaved worker’s determination to become free, a distinguishing feature of many of the narratives he examines. By close reading a broad range of slave testimonials, and consulting narratives produced by formerly enslaved workers who ranged in hierarchical rank and type of work, Andrews establishes how the various narrators’ self-perception and identity evolved through the prism of upward social and class mobility. From these fertile individual accounts, Andrews develops the critical discourse surrounding the slave narrative genre’s crucial contribution to African American identity construction in mid-nineteenth-century America.

 

The book commences with a discussion of how the language of class awareness permeates the narratives. To that end, the study highlights the narrators’ usage of “value -laden class terminology,” zeroing-in on words such as ‘aristocrat’, ‘gentleman’, ‘lady’, ‘workingmen’, ‘ordinary labourers’, ‘free labor’, ‘low whites’, and ‘mean whites’ to determine the hierarchical stratifications that determined both interracial and intraracial relationships (43). This social hierarchy, as represented by the narrators, was based predominantly on access to material means, autonomy, and social influence. Though the narrators do not conclusively define antebellum class stratifications in explicit, determined detail, they frequently acknowledge “degrees of socioeconomic difference as well as social rankings among the enslaved” (30). The echelons that structured slave labor were governed by an essential dichotomy between manual and mental labor. Generally speaking, Andrews finds that slaves were compelled into one of two overarching classes: “domestic workers” (house servants) and “agricultural workers” (field hands) (17). Many of these intraracial relationships that Andrews presents were mediated by an awareness of class informed both by the ranked divisions of slave labor and observed white society. The ranks of the enslaved formed a grim mirror to antebellum Southern white society, with the slaves who labored indoors being generally more advantaged than those whose agricultural duties took place outdoors on plantations. Furthermore, Andrews deduces that a slave’s social standing among their fellow slaves often paralleled the social standing of their respective enslavers, with the large plantations or affluent city residences of white masters conferring a degree of elitism to the slaves that labored for their upkeep. Many of the narrators employ class-inflected language when articulating their ambitions to pursue opportunity while enslaved and, ultimately, to attain liberty. These narrators, refusing to allow enslavement to determine their lives, instead depict their individual trajectory as a mobile, societal ascendence out of slavery and into freedom. As Frederick Douglass writes, “[m]y tendency was upward” (39).

 

The study then delves into a thorough examination of the kinds of work performed by slave narrators during their enslavement. As enslaved laborers, their lives were very much governed by their work, and thus the narratives often reveal that it was through an inescapable awareness of slave work’s classifications that the narrators often understood themselves and their relationships to their fellow slaves and white overseers. Of the fifty-two narrators studied, Andrews finds that the majority of these (predominantly male) authors advanced themselves socioeconomically through their work, usually in skilled labor positions. The increased agency and potential for mobility granted to them through skill-based jobs changed their perception of both their own identities as slaves and their potential as independent, free workers. Though these skilled labor positions increased their autonomy within the confines of slavery, few narrators report being satisfied with simply improving their material or social circumstances while still enslaved. In repeated testimonials, the formerly enslaved narrators’ resistance to control and exploitation grew with their incrementally increased agency, with each successful moment of social advancement “whetting their appetite for ever-greater personal fulfillment culminating in an ultimate bid for freedom” (40). As their work often provided the means by which the narrators improved their circumstances while enslaved – with many accounts citing skilled work as a source of pride and a means of resistance to the dehumanizing labor of slavery – it was through work that these men and women often came to imagine themselves as free members of society in the North.

 

Of course, the majority of the narratives that Andrews selects – especially those penned by the more famous mid-nineteenth-century narrators such as Douglass, Wells Brown, Pennington, Henson, ‘Box’ Brown, Northup, Craft, and Jacobs – were produced by formerly enslaved narrators whose experience of slavery was atypical of slavery writ large. By ambition, opportunism, ingenuity, or luck, these narrators had the opportunity to develop skills that often gave them access to more abundant and higher quality material resources. Furthermore, skilled positions often enabled them to increase their independence by hiring out their labor, which allowed them to accrue personal money and gain relative freedom of movement. These possibilities would have been unattainable for the vast majority of slaves, most of whom were agricultural laborers. Only twelve of the sixty-one narratives Andrews examines were written by narrators who had been agricultural laborers for all or most of their enslavement, and while these narrators share with the more famous narratives an evident pride and self-determination, the ambitions of these agricultural workers were “comparatively modest, focused on practical, real-world improvements in the narrator’s employment, educational, or familial situation rather than large-scale reforms of the social order” (138). Hence, the preponderance of slave narratives were penned by members of the skilled class of enslaved laborers. They worked in upper echelon positions such as ministers, tradesmen, or even slave-drivers, recounting their lives as a triumphant ascent from laborious physical toil to intellectual or vocational professions in liberty. Here Andrews notes that, “[i]n this respect, the large majority of the narratives of the enslaved artisans, tradesmen, and small business creators read like classic American success stories” (81). Andrews devotes significant ink in this chapter to the phenomenon of self-hiring, an occurrence which many narrators recount as crucial to their ultimate freedom from bondage. For instance, Lunsford Lane manufactured pipes and tobacco with such entrepreneurial aptitude that he was ultimately able to purchase his own freedom using the profits of his self-hired labor. While being able to earn money for themselves improved their material means in the short term, their ability to participate in a cash economy sparked their desire to further their agency by working for their own ends in freedom – “a milestone in their quest for economic independence” (142). Of course, despite the measure of trust extended by the white enslaver to the enterprising narrator, the enslaved individual’s increased autonomy through self-hiring often bore social repercussions among envious fellow slaves. The ambitious narrator often reports feelings of isolation, trusted yet enslaved by white masters and skilled yet distrusted by their fellow slaves in a poignant illustration of the class-mediated interracial and intraracial relationships that structured slavery in the antebellum South. Indeed, Andrews finds that it was often the qualities of skill, ingenuity, and ambition that the narrators evinced while enslaved that not only earned them membership in slavery’s grim upper echelon, but which also fueled their ultimate bids for freedom and success in liberation.

 

The third chapter discusses how the language of class deployed in mid-nineteenth-century slave narratives provided a means of probing the caste dichotomy that enslaved one race while privileging and making masters of another. The individual successes relayed in the narratives functioned as both a “resistance to caste restriction and promotion of class advancement” (53). The examined narrators prove to be unified in their denunciation of the claims to racial superiority espoused by their white enslavers, consistently emphasizing the inhumanity of slavery and the violent, savage tendencies of slaveholders as the principal means by which the cruel practice was maintained. By crafting damning portraits of various slaveholders in their narratives, the narrators illustrate the “stark inconsistencies between the high-caste superiority slaveholders presumed and the low-class attitudes, values, and behaviors they actually exhibited” (169). However, these narrators also reference instances in which they or their fellow slaves attached their own self-estimate to the socioeconomic status of their masters, creating a parallel hierarchy among the enslaved that tracked with the hierarchy of white Southern society – and which sometimes occasioned class tensions among the enslaved themselves. And while some ‘gentleman’ slaveholders are recounted in the narratives with less invective than the slaveholding class write large, no slaveholder proved kind enough to stymie the narrators’ desire for freedom from the slavery instituted and practiced even by the gentlest of masters.

 

The fourth and final chapter investigates the fugitive slave narrator as a class unto themselves. The narrators often represent themselves as triumphal, heroic figures who have succeeded by personal qualities and aptitudes that set them apart from their fellow slaves and whose resistance to enslavement enabled them to overcome their enslavers. Additionally, in this chapter Andrews emphasizes the significance of the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 to the development of the slave narrative, a law that drew such national controversy and opposition among anti-slavery activists that intrigue in the accounts of former slaves exploded in popularity. Consider Douglass’ Narrative, which had undergone seven editions, sold over 30,000 copies, and been translated into Dutch and French, all within the first five years of its publication. However, Andrews is careful to point out that the fervent interest in slave narratives did not immediately surmount the white supremacist notions maintained by even the most outraged abolitionist pockets of the North. The narrators had to battle Romantic portraits of African Americans of the kind portrayed in Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the one hand and pervasive, racist assumptions about Blacks on the other. Fugitive slaves were under particular scrutiny during this period, with many narrators expressing concern for their lives and liberty were they to disclose their fugitive status. Adding to the difficulty of the trapeze act performed by formerly enslaved narrators was the pervasive suspicion of “anything that smacked of black self-promotion,” hence the “apologetic preface” that often accompanied the slave narrative (253-4). However, the narrators often claim credit for the pivotal moment in their accounts when they seized the opportunity to emancipate themselves. The narrators had the difficult task of proving both the inhumanity and injustice of slavery and their personal right to freedom, “based not on law but on ethical, emotional, and spiritual appeals to their readers” (254). The narrators were aware that their personal testimonial was a contribution to the defining issue of their time – the argument for the total emancipation of their race.

While the breadth and depth of research that Andrews has conducted – not just for this project but throughout his career – forms the unimpeachable foundation for this book’s thoroughly convincing and articulate claims, it is the moments of close reading performed by the author that give the book its compulsion. On this score, the discussion concerning Nelly Kellem that ends the third chapter is exemplary. Indeed, Slavery and Class will be of immediate interest to advanced students and scholars of both American history and literature. While at times the sheer preponderance of textual examples might overwhelm the reader, this capaciousness is perhaps a necessary ingredient for a project as ambitious, expansive, foundational, and prescient as this book so clearly is.

Fletcher Bonin

Fletcher Bonin

Fletcher Bonin is a PhD candidate and teaching fellow in the University of Rhode Island English Department. His research interests span 19th- and 20th-century American literature. He completed his MA in English at the Catholic University of America in 2021.
Fletcher Bonin

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Author: Fletcher Bonin

Fletcher Bonin is a PhD candidate and teaching fellow in the University of Rhode Island English Department. His research interests span 19th- and 20th-century American literature. He completed his MA in English at the Catholic University of America in 2021.