Genovese In The Classroom

Today my AP students read and discussed a short excerpt from Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World The Slaveholders Made. This is the second year that I’ve used this text in the classroom and it is a real challenge for high school students.  Since Eric Foner discusses paternalism in his textbook the selection from Genovese gives students a much richer insight into interpretations that take seriously the process by which both slaveholders and slaves responded to one another and in turn created their communities.  I give the students three questions to consider while they read: (1) How did slaves respond to the paternalism of their owners? (2) In what ways did slaves and slave-owners create a distinct community; what is Genovese’s evidence? (3) What preconceptions about slavery is Genovese challenging? 

I am still surprised by how the students respond to this text.  A few have no idea what he is getting at, but those students who spend the necessary time walk away with a radically different understanding of how slavery functioned in the antebellum South. 

Here ares some passages that the class is asked to focus on:

Cruel, unjust, exploitative, oppressive, slavery bound two peoples together in bitter antagonism while creating an organic relationship so complex and ambivalent that neither could express the simplest human feelings without reference to the other.

A paternalism accepted by both masters and slaves–but with radically different interpretations–afforded a fragile bridge across the intolerable contradictions inherent in a society based on racism, slavery, and class exploitation that had to depend on the willing reproduction and productivity of its victims. For the slaveholders paternalism represented an attempt to overcome the fundamental contradiction in slavery: the impossibility of the slaves’ ever becoming the things they were supposed to be.  Paternalism defined the involuntary labor of the slaves as a legitimate return to their masters for protection and direction. But, the masters’ need to see their slaves as acquiescent human beings constituted a moral victory for the slaves themselves.  Paternalism’s insistence upon mutual obligations–duties, responsibilities, and ultimately even rights–implicitly recognized the slaves’ humanity.

The humanity of the slave implied his action, and his action implied his will.  Hegel was therefore right in arguing that slavery constituted an outrage, for, in effect, it has always rested on the falsehood that one man could become an extension of another’s will. If one man could so transform himself, he could do it only by an act of that very will supposedly being surrendered, and he would remain so only while he himself chose to.  The clumsy attempt of the slaveholders to invoke a religious sanction did not extricate them from this contradiction. The Christian tradition, from the early debates over the implications of original sin through the attempts of Hobbes and others to secularize the problem, could not rationally defend the idea of permanent and total submission rooted in a temporarily precise surrender of will.  The idea of man’s surrender to God cannot be equated with the idea of man’s surrender to man, but even if it could, the problem would remain.

Overall the class went well.  We talked about the attempt to portray the slaves as agents in the way they acknowledged the paternalism of their owners and acted to use it to their advantage.  This is an important space that Genovese develops and I tried to get my students to see it by commenting on the broader historiographical depiction of slaves.  Some of them commented that they really enjoyed reading it and I suspect that this has much to do with his emphasis on a new question.  My students are "trained" to think of slavery as involving a power relation that is one-sided.  Slave-holders acted on their slaves.  Within this interpretation slaves are rendered invisible or were acted upon. 

I understand and agree with some of the criticisms of the book.  Yes, he does jump from the Lower South to the Upper South and the 18th to the 19th century all in one paragraph.  Yet, there is something aesthetic about Roll, Jordan, Roll.  Every time I go back to it I pull something new out of his interpretation.  The dynamic between the slave-holder and slave is such an interesting historical turn that continues to drive much of what is published.  I guess this is what goes into a real classic.

One thought on “Genovese In The Classroom

  1. elektratig


    I fear I wouldn’t do too well in your class. I get the drift of the passage you quote, but it’s buried in such a pile of pretentious jargon and pseudo-intellectual posturing (extra credit for the reference to Hegel!) that it makes me cringe. If any of yor student reacted to the piece by laughing out loud or throwing it on the floor, give them an A. To each his own, I suppose.


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