Current Debates

How Did Slavery Affect the Origins of African American Culture?



As we noted in Chapter 4, there has been considerable debate about the role of slavery in the creation of African American culture. One strand of the debate began with the publication of Stanley Elkins 1959 book Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life, in which he argued that African American culture was created in response to the repressive plantation system and in the context of brutalization, total control of the slaves by their owners, and dehumanization. He argued that black culture was “made in America,” but in an abnormal, even pathological social setting. The plantation was a sick society that dominated and infantilized black slaves. The dominant reality for slaves—and the only significant other person in their lives—was the master. Elkins described the system as a “perverted patriarchy” that psychologically forced the slaves to identify with their oppressors and to absorb the racist values at the core of the structure.

Elkins’s book stimulated an enormous amount of controversy and research on the impact of slavery and the origins of African American culture. Researchers developed new sources of evidence and new perspectives and, contrary to Elkins, they have generally concluded that African American culture is a combination of elements, some from the traditional cultures of Africa and others fabricated on the plantation.

Two selections illustrate this argument, both focused on family life.  One, from the work of historian William Piersen, focuses on the survival of West African and African American customs and the other, from historian Peter Kolchin, argues that slaves had sufficient latitude to create their own world and their own understandings of themselves.

A final view is presented in an excerpt from the writings of Deborah Gray White. She argues that most scholarly work on slavery is written from the perspective of the male slave only, to the point of excluding the female experience. In the passage from her 1985 book Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South, she also addresses the problems of research in the area of minority group females and summarizes some of what has been learned from recent scholarship on the impact of slavery.

All of these views are consistent with Blauner’s idea that the cultures of colonized minority groups are attacked and that the groups are forcibly acculturated. Elkins’s argument is the most extreme in that it sees African American culture as fabricated entirely in response to the demands of enslavement and the fearful, all-powerful figure of the master.



NOTE: Unlike other chapters, there are no internet links in this debate. The selections that follow are edited versions of the original works


Slavery Created African American Culture

Stanley Elkins 

Both [the Nazi concentration camps and the American slave plantations] were closed systems from which all standards based on prior connections had been effectively detached. A working adjustment to either system required a childlike conformity, a limited choice of “significant other.” Cruelty per se cannot be considered the primary key to this; of far greater importance was the simple “closedness” of the system, in which all lines of authority descended from the master and in which alternative social bases that might have supported alternative standards were systematically suppressed. The individual, consequently, for his very psychic security, had to picture his master in some way as the “good father,” even when, as in the concentration camp, it made no sense at all.

For the Negro child, in particular, the plantation offered no really satisfactory father image other than the master. The “real” father was virtually without authority over his child, since discipline, parental responsibility, and control of rewards and punishments all rested in other hands; the slave father could not even protect the mother of his children, except by appealing directly to the master. Indeed, the mother’s own role loomed far larger for the slave child than that of the father. She controlled those few activities – household care, preparation of food, and rearing of children – that were left to the slave family. For that matter, the very etiquette of plantation life removed even the honorific attributes of fatherhood from the Negro male, who was addressed as “boy” – until, when the vigorous years of his prime were past, he was allowed to assume the title of “uncle.”

From the master’s viewpoint, slaves had been defined in law as property, and the master’s power over his property must be absolute. . . . Absolute power for him meant absolute dependency for the slave—the dependency not of the developing child but of the perpetual child. For the master, the role most aptly fitting such a relationship would naturally be that of father.

SOURCE: Elkins (1959, pp. 130–131).


African American Culture Was Created by an Interplay of Elements from Africa and America

William D. Piersen 

In the colonial environment, . . . [African and European] traditions were fused. . . . The result was an unprecedented and unintended new multicultural American way of life. . . . [Africans] had little choice [but this] adjustment was not as difficult . . . as we might suppose: The cultures of Africa and Europe were both dominated by the rhythms and sensibilities of a premodern, agricultural way of life shaped more by folk religion than by science, and domestic responsibilities were relatively similar on both continents. . . .

One of the greatest sacrifices that faced the new African Americans was the loss of the extended families that had structured most social relationships in Africa. . . . [African marriage customs were usually polygynous (permitting more than one wife) and patrilineal (tracing ancestry through the male side).] With marriage, most African Americans seem . . . to have settled quickly into Euro-American style, monogamous nuclear families that trace inheritance bilaterally through the lines of both parents. Nonetheless, colonial naming choices show the continuing importance of African ideas of kinship among African Americans, for black children were more commonly . . . named after recently deceased relatives, a practice rooted in the African belief of rebirth across generations. . . .

African Americans . . . tried to rebuild as best they could the social cohesion once provided by the now missing extended families of Africa. [They] tried to duplicate some of the kinship . . . functions . . . by forging close relationships with their countrymen and shipmates from the Middle Passage. . . . [Many] treated both the blacks and whites that lived with them . . . as a kind of artificial kin. . . .

In North America many white colonials soon gave up traditional European village residence patterns to move out individually on the land, but African Americans, when they had the choice, generally preferred to stay together. . . . Such communalism [was] a reflection of the value that Africans and African Americans put on collective living.

In West Africa kin groups gathered in their housing together in large compounds that featured centralized open spaces devoted to social functions and collective recreation. Husbands and wives within the compounds usually had their own separate family quarters. . . . In colonial African American housing the old ways were maintained. . . . [In early-18th-century Virginia] most slaves lived in clusterings of more than 10 people. In these quarters, black social life was centered not on the interior of the small dark sleeping structures but outside on the common space devoted to social functions.

SOURCE: Piersen (1996).



Slaves Were Able to Establish Their Own Customs

Peter Kolchin 

Historians … have been virtually unanimous in finding that Elkins erred in depicting a world in which slaves had no "meaningful others" aside from their masters. Of course, slaves lived under widely varying conditions, … for the vast majority, however, slavery never provided such a hermetically sealed environment; beings who were in theory totally dependent on their masters were able in practice to forge a semi-autonomous world … which accentuated their own distinctive customs and values. In this endeavor, they looked for support most of all to their families and their religion.

Families provided a crucial if fragile buffer, shielding slaves from the worst rigors of slavery. ... Even under the best of circumstances, slave families lacked … institutional and legal support … [but] Antebellum slaves lived in families, legally recognized or not.  …

Slave owners … usually … considered themselves strong supporters of, slave families. Motivated by both a paternalistic concern for the well-being of their "people" and a calculating regard for their own economic interest, slave owners paid … attention to the family lives of their slaves.  …  Their actions … served to make possible, despite the hostile environment, a family life among slaves that was vital if constantly at risk. …

Most … historians have stressed the actions of the slaves themselves in building and defending their families … Like most other Americans and Western Europeans… , Southern slaves usually lived in nuclear … households: father, mother, and children. … Marriages, unless broken by sale, were usually long-lasting. Families constituted a fundamental survival mechanism, enabling the slaves to resist the kind of dehumanization that Elkins believed they underwent. Slaves may have owed their masters instantaneous and unquestioned obedience, but in the bosoms of their families they loved, laughed, quarreled, schemed, sang, and endured, much as free people did.

Slave families exhibited a number of features that differentiated them from prevailing norms among white Southerners and revealed the degree to which those families were created by the slaves themselves. Slaves used naming practices to solidify family ties …, naming children after fathers and grandfathers especially frequently because male relatives were more likely than female to be sold away. …

The slaves' marital standards differed in significant ways from those of their owners. Although slaves expected each other to be faithful in marriage, they did not put much stock in the prevailing Victorian notion of premarital sexual abstinence. … Unlike Southern planters, however, slaves strictly adhered to marital exogamy, shunning marriage with first cousins. …

Slave children learned at an early age that they had to conform to the wishes of two sets of authorities-their parents and their owners … Such competing claims on their loyalty could be confusing. Evidence of the masters' authority was readily apparent in their dealings with adult slaves; children who saw their parents verbally or physically abused without resisting could not fail to draw the appropriate lesson about where real power lay. At the same time, parents struggled to provide their children with love and attention and passed on family lore as well as customs and values. With the help of friends and relatives, parents sang to their children, told them stories, [and] exposed them to their version of Christianity. …

Although families provided slaves with a basic refuge from the horrors of slavery, this refuge was always insecure. Masters who preached the importance of family life subverted their own message by constantly interfering with their people's families: they sold, raped, and whipped. … Slaves struggled valiantly' to lead "normal" lives, and in doing so they relied most heavily on their families, but their lack of power … rendered those families extremely vulnerable.  … Slave families … reflected … both the determined efforts of their members to achieve a measure of autonomy and the fragility of that autonomy.

SOURCE: Kolchin, 2003 pp. 138-143


The Experiences of Female Slaves Have Been Under-Researched and Under-Reported

Deborah Gray White 

Stanley Elkins began [the debate] by alleging that the American slave master had such absolute power and authority over the bondsman that the slave was reduced to childlike dependency. “Sambo,” Elkins argued, was more than a product of Southern fantasy. He could not be dismissed as a “stereotype.”

Elkins’ thesis had a profound effect upon the research and writing of the history of slavery. … The direction that the research took, however, was in large part predetermined because Elkins’ slavery defined the parameters of the debate. In a very subtle way these parameters had more to do with the nature of male slavery than with female slavery. . . .

John Blassingame’s The Slave Community is a classic, but much of it deals with male status. For instance, Blassingame stressed the fact that many masters recognized the male as the head of the family. He observed that during courtship, men flattered women and exaggerated their prowess. There was, however, little discussion of the reciprocal activities of slave women. Blassingame also described how slave men gained status in the family and slave community, but did not do the same for women. . . .

The reality of slave life gives us reason to suspect that we do black women a disservice when we rob them of a history that placed them at the side of their men in their race’s struggle for freedom. The present study takes a look at slave women and argues that they were not submissive, subordinate, or prudish, and they were not expected to be so. Women had different roles from those of men, and they also had a great deal in common with their African foremothers, who held positions not inferior but complementary to those of men. . .

Source material on the general nature of slavery exists in abundance, but it is very difficult to find source material about slave women in particular. Slave women are everywhere, yet nowhere. . . .

The source problem is directly related to what was and still is the black woman’s condition. Every economic and political index demonstrated the black woman’s virtual powerlessness in American society. A consequence of the double jeopardy and powerlessness is the black woman’s invisibility. . . .

The history of slavery has come a long way. … We have learned that race relations were never so clear-cut as to be solely a matter of white over black, but that in the assimilation of culture, in the interaction of blacks and whites, there were gray areas and relationships more aptly described in terms of black over white. We have also begun to understand that despite the brutality and inhumanity, or perhaps because of it, a distinct African American culture based on close-knit kinship relationships grew and thrived, and that it was this culture that sustained black people through many trials before and after emancipation.

SOURCE: Gray White, Deborah. 1985.  Ar’nt I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South. New York: Norton.  pp. 17 - 25



  • Why is the origin of African American culture an important issue? What difference does it make today? If Elkins is correct, what are the implications for dealing with racial inequality in the present? Could a culture that was created under a pathological system and a sick society be an adequate basis for the pursuit of equality and justice today? Is Elkins’s thesis a form of blaming the victim? Is it a way of blaming the present inequality of the black community on an “inadequate” culture, thus absolving the rest of society from blame?


  • If Piersen, Kolchin, and White are correct, what are the implications for how African Americans think about their history and about themselves? What difference does it make if your roots are in Africa or in colonial Virginia or in both?


  • What does White add to the debate? What are some of the challenges in researching the experiences of female slaves? How did the experiences of female slaves differ from those of male slaves?