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In the late 1990s, most Americans, black and white, identify slavery with cotton, the deep South, and the African-American church. But at the beginning of the 19th century, after almost 200 years of African-American life in mainland North America, few slaves grew cotton, lived in the deep South, or embraced Christianity. This text traces the evolution of black society from the first arrivals in the early-17th century through to the Revolution. In telling their story, Ira Berlin, a leading historian of southern and African-American life, reintegrates slaves into the history of the American working class and into the tapestry of the nation. Labouring as field hands on tobacco and rice plantations, as skilled artisans in port cities, or soldiers along the frontier, generation after generation of African-Americans struggled to create a world of their own making. In a panoramic view that stretches from the North to the Chesapeake Bay and Carolina lowcountry, to the Mississippi Valley, this text reveals the diverse forms that slavery and freedom assumed before cotton was king. The reader witnesses the transformation that occurred as the first generations of creole slaves - who worked alongside their owners, free blacks, and indentured whites - gave way to the plantation generations, whose back-breaking labour was the sole engine of their society, and whose physical and linguistic isolation sustained African traditions on American soil.

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Book Details

ISBN: 9780674002111
ISBN-10: 0674002113
Format: Paperback
(235mm x 155mm x 33mm)
Pages: 512
Imprint: The Belknap Press
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Publish Date: 1-Mar-2000
Country of Publication: United States

Other Editions

Reviews

US Kirkus Review » In a real contribution to the literature of American slavery, Berlin (History/Univ. of Maryland, College Park; co-editor, Families and Freedom, 1997) sketches the complex evolution of that institution in the American colonies and the early US. Berlin divides his account into three periods in which, he contends, slaves had vastly different experiences: the charter generations, made up of the first arrivals in the 17th and early 18th centuries, and their descendants; the plantation generations, which comprised the intermediate generations that cultivated the great staples on which the colonial American economy was based; and the revolutionary generations, which consisted of those who sought freedom in the wake of the promise of the American Revolution. In so doing, Berlin traces the development of a "society with slaves" - that is, in which slavery was a marginal institution that represented only one among many labor sources - into a "slave society" in which slavery was not only central to the economy but formed the basis of all social institutions. In societies with slaves, such as the northern US, slaves enjoyed a surprising degree of autonomy, maintained their identity as Africans to a large extent, owned property, often negotiated with their masters over the terms of their enslavement, and sometimes ultimately obtained their freedom. In the deep South by contrast, the evolution of the society with slaves into a slave society was accelerated by the emergence of a planter class and consolidated by the growth of cotton as a mass export crop. Here plantation slavery began to assume the patriarchal and corporate features familiar to us today. However, as the author notes, at the beginning of the 19th century, "the vast majority of black people, slave and free, did not reside in the black belt, grow cotton, or subscribe to Christianity." A cogently argued, well-researched narrative that points to the complex nature of American slavery, the falsity of many of our stereotypes, and the unique world wrought by the slaves themselves. (Kirkus Reviews)


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Author Biography - Ira Berlin

Ira Berlin is Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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