Skip to content

Response to Review of My Brother Slaves: Friendship, Masculinity, and Resistance in the Antebellum South

I’d like to thank Craig Friend for taking the time to review my book and engage with a variety of issues raised by my work. His negative evaluation is disappointing. But more troubling is that many of his criticisms, I feel, are unwarranted and misleading. I am required, therefore, to respond at length to his review.

Friend states I could have paid attention to the possibility that enslaved men re-enacted the hegemonic masculinity of their masters in slave communities. But later he suggests that a problem with the book is that I equated the resistant masculinity of enslaved people with the hegemonic model. Which is it to be? Despite Friend’s contradiction, I want to respond to the claim that the enslaved men in My Brother Slaves do not perform hegemonic masculinity. In chapter two, I describe in detail how men competed in organised fights to assert their dominance over one another, and prove themselves among their male peers, gaining status, respect and power in the community. In the words of one former slave, ‘the best man whipped and other one took it’ (p. 67). Men aggressively defended their reputations in the ring. For example, former slave Lula Jackson recalled how an insult could trigger off a contest: ‘One man would walk up to another and say “You ain’t no good”. And the other one would say, “All right, le’s see”. And they would rassle’. Jackson recalled that her mother’s first husband, Myers, was killed in a wrestling match (p. 64, p. 68). In this way, the men in my study did sometimes subscribe to a violent hegemonic model of masculinity.

My use of resistant masculinity has been criticised by Friend. He claims that I simply employ resistant masculinity to describe a violent resistance to slavery. Accordingly, he suggests that I could have expanded and reimagined the concept: ‘might not resistant masculinity be a rejection of the hegemonic model, much as Martin Luther King Jr. employed with his emphasis on nonviolent resistance?’ He misunderstands my arguments. In the book’s introduction, I make my position extremely clear:

A number of African American writers of the nineteenth century, as well as subsequent scholars, have equated slave rebellion with masculinity. In this way, only those who defiantly and violently challenged their enslavement proved their masculinity. This approach, however, is unhelpful, for it implies that those men who did not violently rebel somehow lacked masculinity (p. 9).

I then go on to explain that one of the theoretical aims of My Brother Slaves is to reconceptualise male resistance to slavery by shifting attention from the violent world of slave rebellion to the personal, everyday spaces of enslaved men. I state: ‘It was in their everyday spaces that enslaved men developed their male subculture and negotiated their masculinity’ (p. 9). The enslaved men of my study do not solely equate masculinity with violent resistance. Examples appear throughout the book documenting how enslaved men negotiated their masculinity non-violently: for example, through their work, hunting together, and through their friendships. The friendship of John Brown and John Glasgow that I mention in chapter four is particularly revealing. For the benefit of those who have not read my book, I will offer a brief summary of the relationship. Born a slave in Southampton County, Virginia, John Brown was sold away from his mother and left traumatised and depressed. Brown’s new master whipped him severely. On one occasion, the slaveholder beat Brown so severely he broke Brown’s nose and cut the tendons of his right eye. Brown was saved, though, by a member of his work gang, John Glasgow – a free black sailor based in England who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Glasgow consoled Brown and nursed him back to health after the brutal attacks. In his slave narrative, Brown referred to Glasgow as ‘his only friend’. Glasgow boosted Brown’s morale, and, as a result, he grew stronger. Brown testified how important his friendship with Glasgow was – it gave him hope, it made him feel better, and it gave him something to live for. Together, the two men swapped stories, relied on one another, and resisted the slaveholder’s attempts to crush their spirits and aspirations. Brown found Glasgow’s stories of life as a freeman in England so inspiring, he made repeated escapes to get there. Brown stated it was Glasgow who taught him ‘to love and to seek liberty’. And after a successful escape to the northern states, Brown boarded a ship, crossed the Atlantic and eventually settled in his friend’s homeland. Brown and Glasgow’s friendship indicates that there was an alternative to a violent expression of masculinity (pp. 112–14). And it’s something I discuss at length in the monograph. Indeed, Brown and Glasgow’s friendship is an ideal example of the ‘caretaker’ model of slave masculinity discussed by historian Ed Baptist in an article Friend footnoted in his review as an example of a critique of resistant masculinity.(1a)

Friend criticises my use of others’ analytical theories, such as Stephanie Camp’s ‘three bodies’ theory. He states, ‘given the physiological differences between men and women … is it not possible that the “three bodies” theory is insufficient for the enslaved male body?’ I disagree. Were male bodies not dominated, colonised and reclaimed during slavery? Friend argues that Camp’s theory explains the experiences of enslaved women, but when I employ the theory I make ‘no distinction between women and men, making resistance less a masculine pursuit than a reaction by all oppressed peoples’. This is simply wrong. In chapter two, I relay a number of stories demonstrating how men reclaimed their bodies through wrestling (pp. 60–9). This was an intensely masculine pursuit (I have found no evidence of women wrestling in any of the WPA narratives or slave autobiographies). Wrestling bouts organised by enslaved men were extremely important spaces through which men could contest the emasculating features of slavery, proving their male physicality, strength and stamina. Men took pride in their fighting bodies. The fighting body empowered men and validated their masculinity. Men and women admired and respected strong, masculine fighting bodies. Indeed, through the reclaimed fighting body, some men physically resisted whippings from whites and caused their owners problems. Take, for example, the case of former slave Reverend Perry Jamison. He recalled that enslaved on his plantation was a ‘colored boy’ who ‘wuz a fighter’: ‘He wuz six foot tall and over 200 pounds’ and ‘would not stand to be whipped by de white man’. The father of former slave Robert Falls was sold four times because he was ‘mean as a bear’ and so ‘troublesome’ and ‘bad to fight’. Likewise, Wallace Turnage claimed that because he was ‘an expert wrestler’ it gave him the courage to stand up to a white overseer and physically fight him (pp. 63–4). More examples of these distinctly masculine responses to slavery can be found in My Brother Slaves. Contrary to Friend’s claim, these examples demonstrate that Camp’s three body theory can help interpret male bodily resistance to slavery.

Friend claims that my research comes after decades of research on enslaved peoples. It certainly does, and I have, as he notes, tried to develop the analytical theories of some of these works that have revolutionised how we study slavery – particularly studies of enslaved women, such as those by Deborah Gray White and Stephanie Camp. I am perplexed, though, at his statement that ‘masculinity studies have already delineated how we study enslaved men, even if it has not been done very much’. It seems presumptuous to suggest that scholars have already settled on a particular way to study enslaved men, despite masculinity studies being a new field. Unfortunately, Friend provides no examples of those historians who have delineated the way he thinks we should examine enslaved men. My Brother Slaves is the first monograph to examine the lives of enslaved men and their relationships with one another, and the interlinking issues of friendship, masculinity and resistance in the antebellum South. It is misleading, therefore, to suggest that ‘scholars who have engaged the historiography of slave life … will be familiar with most of the content and analysis in the book’s first four chapters’. I’ll discuss one example: chapter four. This chapter focuses exclusively on male friendship – a topic that has never been explored in the historiography. No historian has posed the following questions: how important was same-sex friendship among men in slavery? Did male friendship, like the slave family, function as a buffer against the dehumanising features of enslaved life? If so, how effective was it as a form of resistance? Chapter four of My Brother Slaves argues that same-sex friendships were central to the lives of 19th-century Americans and then explores, through folklore, the values of male friendship in slave communities. The final portion of the chapter examines the intensely personal friendships shared between enslaved men, arguing that in this private world, enslaved men instigated and nurtured an oppositional culture to enslavement. Let me reiterate: these issues have never been explored before the publication of my book.

I have been criticised for neglecting male-female relationships. This comes as no surprise given that the focus of this study was on men’s relationships with other men. I am troubled, though, with Friend’s insistence that there was ‘no historiographical reason’ for neglecting male-female relationships. On the contrary, throughout the historiography, historians have paid close attention to male-female relationships. They have been preoccupied with the extent to which the slave family was disrupted and whether enslaved men were able to perform the roles of father and husband, to provide and protect for their loved ones.(2a) Kenneth Stampp, writing in 1956, argued that the husband ‘was not the head of the family, the holder of property, the provider, or the protector’.(3a) Stanley Elkins, writing in 1959, argued that enslaved men were reduced to docile and emasculated Sambos.(4a) Historians like Stampp and Elkins triggered a wave of revisionist historiography during the 1970s from the likes of Blassingame, Genovese, and Gutman, who argued that the slave family was not necessarily destroyed and that enslaved men, in many cases, were able to perform the role of father and husband.(5a) Genovese, for example, attacked ‘the conventional wisdom according to which slavery had emasculated black men’ in a chapter of Roll, Jordan, Roll entitled ‘The Myth of the Absent Family’.(6a) Indeed, in recent years, Emily West and Rebecca Fraser have produced monographs dedicated to the study of male-female relationships among enslaved people. Both historians, building on the revisionists, concluded that enslaved men, despite the oppression of slavery, saw themselves as providers and protectors in their courting and spousal relationships.(7a)

My Brother Slaves seeks to move beyond this now familiar provider/protector framework to ask new questions and explore new manifestations of enslaved masculinity: how did enslaved men relate to one another? How did they negotiate masculine identities through one another? How significant were male-male relationships? Were they as valued as male-female relationships? As I emphasise in the book, homosocial relationships were central to antebellum Americans, particularly southerners. Numerous studies have appeared over the years demonstrating that, among white southerners, masculinity was a social designation that required testing and validation in the presence of other men.(8a) Yet, few historians have explored how enslaved African Americans constructed masculine identities in ways similar to whites. As scholar Michael Kimmel has noted, ‘in large part it’s other men who are important to American men; American define their masculinity, not as much in relation to women, but in relation to each other’.(9a) Indeed, in my study, I find that many enslaved men performed, tested and validated their masculinity in the presence of one another – whether it was at work, through leisure activities, or through their friendships. It was never my intention to imply that ‘women played little role shaping men’s everyday lives’, as Friend claims, but simply advance the historiography, ask new questions, and move beyond the provider/protector category of analysis.

Friend makes a valid point that women played ‘critical roles in defining and reinforcing masculine ideals that were forged in homosociality’. He refers to 19th-century white fraternities and how men talked to one another about women and, through their discussions, conceptualised their courtships and boasted about their relationships with women. This particular example is interesting because it is touched upon in Rebecca Fraser’s work on courtship and love among the enslaved in North Carolina.(10a) Unfortunately, I was unable to find evidence detailing the conversations shared by enslaved men on the topic of courtship and their relationships with women. It is most likely, however, that men discussed these issues with one other, particularly when they were drinking and gambling in homosocial spaces. I do discuss, though, how enslaved men wrestled one another to settle courting disputes. As one former female slave stated, recalling how two men fought over her: ‘Dey bof’ wanted me, an’ couldn’ decide no other way’ (p. 68). In this way, enslaved women were central to the negotiation of masculinity in the homosocial world. I also talk about how enslaved men hunted and stole in groups at night to bolster their masculine worth in the eyes of their wives and families, and how enslaved men physically fought the patrol gangs in groups in order to visit their wives and families on different plantations (pp. 71–97). Women motivated enslaved men in these contexts and, therefore, contributed to the construction of masculinity in these homosocial spaces.

I’d like to finish by addressing Friend’s closing statement: that my book fails to meet ‘the historiographical challenges of our time: to move beyond segregated gender studies, escape time-worn theories of honor and mastery, and imaginatively question the ideal of resistant masculinity’. Firstly, I have already explained the historiographical rationale for My Brother Slaves – this is the first monograph to examine the lives of enslaved men and issues of masculinity and I wanted to reposition how we conceptualise masculinity by moving beyond the provider/protector framework, hence my focus on male-male relationships. Secondly, I don’t understand why I have been accused of employing ‘time-worn theories of honor and mastery’. I mention honour and mastery a few times in my work – when discussing slave wrestling, for example – but it certainly does not drive my overall analysis. Indeed, in my discussion of friendship, the negotiation of enslaved masculinity emerges more as an articulation of an expressive, emotional affection rather than a violent public display of honour. As for the last statement – that I have failed to imaginatively question the ideal of resistant masculinity – I have already mentioned that masculinity in My Brother Slaves is not solely equated with violent resistance. A key rationale of my study is to reconceptualise male resistance to slavery by shifting attention from the violent world of slave rebellion to the personal, everyday spaces of enslaved men. Not only this, I have tried to respond to recent calls from historians to connect the everyday, personal spaces of enslaved people to the violent and rebellious struggles waged by the likes of Nat Turner. Walter Johnson, for example, has claimed that in the historiography of slavery, the terms ‘everyday’ and ‘revolutionary’ have ‘been allowed for too long to stand in unproductive opposition to one another rather than being thought of as dialectically inter-related’. He posed a series of questions for historians to consider: ‘How did enslaved people set about forming social solidarities and political movements at the scale of everyday life? How did they talk to one another about slavery, resistance, and revolution? How did they sort through which of their fellows they could trust and which they could not?’(11a) My Brother Slaves addresses Johnson’s questions. For example, I explain how men sought solace in friendships that helped them to not only survive their enslavement, but actively resist it. Friendship enabled men to endure separation from family members, and it provided vital everyday emotional and practical support. But, in their trusted friendships, men also cultivated an oppositional culture to slavery – some plotted to run away and escape slavery together. Enslaved men, I argue, forged their politics in the private spaces of homosociality.

It is unfortunate that Friend has misinterpreted some of my arguments and glossed over the nuances of my thesis. I hope, then, that I have clearly and comprehensively explained why I felt his review was misleading in places. I’d like to thank Friend again and also the editors of Reviews in History for inviting me to respond.

Notes

  1. Edward E. Baptist, ‘The absent subject: African American masculinity and forced migration to the antebellum plantation frontier’, in Southern Manhood: Perspectives on Masculinity in the Old South, ed. Craig Friend and Lorri Glover (Athens, GA, 2004), pp. 136–73.Back to (1a)
  2. Notable studies of male-female relationships in the context of courtship, marriage and family include: Herbert G. Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925 (New York, NY, 1976); Ann Patton Malone, Sweet Chariot: Slave Family and Household Structure in Nineteenth-Century Louisiana (Chapel Hill, NC, 1992); Brenda E. Stevenson, Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South (New York, NY, 1996); Larry E. Hudson, To Have and to Hold: Slave Work and Family Life in Antebellum South Carolina (Athens, GA, 1997); Wilma Dunaway, The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation (Cambridge, MA, 2003); Emily West, Chains of Love: Slave Couples in Antebellum South Carolina (Urbana, IL, 2004); Rebecca J. Fraser, Courtship and Love among the Enslaved in North Carolina (Jackson, MS, 2007).Back to (2a)
  3. Kenneth M. Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South (New York, NY, 1956), p. 343.Back to (3a)
  4. Stanley M. Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (Chicago, IL, 1959), p. 130.Back to (4a)
  5. Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, pp. 45, 186–92; Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York, NY, 1976), pp. 491–92, 450, 482–94; John Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South, Rev. Ed. (New York, NY, 1979), p. 179.Back to (5a)
  6. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll, p. 450.Back to (6a)
  7. West, Chains of Love, p. 45; Fraser, Courtship and Love, pp. 73–6.Back to (7a)
  8. See, for example, Lorri Glover, Southern Sons: Becoming Men in the New Nation (Baltimore, MD, 2007); Southern Manhood, ed. Friend and Glover; Bertram Wyatt-Brown, The Shaping of Southern Culture: Honor, Grace, and War, 1760s–1890s (Chapel Hill, NC, 2001); Kenneth S. Greenberg, Honor and Slavery: Lies, Duels, Noses, Masks, Dressing as a Woman, Gifts, Strangers, Humanitarianism, Death, Slave Rebellions, the Proslavery Argument, Baseball, Hunting, and Gambling in the Old South (Princeton, NJ, 1996); Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (New York, NY, 1982).Back to (8a)
  9. Michael Kimmel, Manhood in America: A Cultural History (New York, NY, 1996), p. 7.Back to (9a)
  10. Fraser, Courtship and Love; Rebecca Griffin, ‘Courtship contests and the meaning of conflict in the folklore of slaves’, Journal of Southern History, 71, 4 (November 2005), 769– 802.Back to (10a)
  11. Walter Johnson, ‘On agency’, Journal of Social History, 37, 1 (Fall 2003), 118.Back to (11a)