Jun 012011

Blassingame, John W. The Slave Community Oxford University Press 1979

Blassingame’s psychological study of Atlantic society has a tangential relationship to the evolution of BDSM. What it does give is insight into slavery as it was seen by whites, and particularly the distortions whites lived with in order to make the peculiar institution work.

The three archetypes, derived from white literature and folklore, are Jack, Nat and Sambo.

Jack, according to Blassingame, is the most realistic portrayal of slave character, but also the rarest. Jack works the minimum, makes the appropriate show of deference, and doesn’t internalize his master’s views. He derives meaning and identity from his peer group in the slave quarters. However, his patience is limited, and his hurts are real. The slave plantation was not as complete a “total institution” as concentration camps were; if nothing else, a slave was worth more than a bullet. The peculiar institution could be characterized as an unstable equilibrium, teetering between brutal sadism at one end and outright revolt at the other.

Nat, derived from Nat Turner, is the violent rebel and runaway. Every white person slept with one eye open, so to speak, for fear of slave rebellion, ranging from minor acts of sabotage and passive-aggression to Turner’s violent revolt. (Not surprisingly, some of this anxiety is expressed in sexual terms, with fear of black-on-white rape.)

The third, Sambo, is the childish, lazy, but ridiculously loyal slave. Sambo is a kind of paranoid overcompensation for the fear of Nat, and the rare but dreaded slave revolt he represented. The irony of the Sambo type is that while whites apparently believed it, such an individual would be largely incapable of doing any kind of productive work. Sambo, being contented and docile, was necessary to legitimize slavery against abolitionist charges.

Nat and Sambo are the yin and yang of black people in the white imagination, and you can’t have one without the other existing, if only subconsciously. (Cf. the Orientalist habit of maintaining contradictory ideas about the Orient.)

I would add a fourth archetype: Prue, the long-suffering victim, though this appeared mainly in abolitionist works. Even that isn’t necessarily accurate, as it obscures the kind of low-level resistance and psychological mutual support blacks practiced.

For the purposes of this historical research, the actuality of slave culture is less important than the white image of it. This book is important for providing the image of how whites saw blacks, and that process eventually led to BDSM fantasy.

A secondary discovery in this book was the sub-genre of what you might call “white slave narratives”, when Blassingame compares Atlantic slavery of blacks to Christian Europeans enslaved in Africa and the East, often via piracy. They published their own accounts.

The first shock for the European sailors and passengers came with the pursuit, roar of cannons, and armed sailors from the corsairs boarding their ship, looting it, and beating and stripping them of most of their clothing. Transferred to the privateer, the whites were frequently locked in its small hold, where they suffered from the stifling heat and the attack of vermin…. the whites were apprehensive upon reading the port and frightened by the people who thronged around them when they landed. After condemnation as slaves by a local Admiralty Court, the bare-footed, half-naked captives were marched repeatedly through the city and exhibited at the slave auctions. Forced to run to and fro to demonstrate their stamina while being auctioned, the captives were compelled to let potential purchasers inspect them, while women were taken into private compartments, where they were stripped naked, fondled, and sometimes examined to determine their virginity.

Pg. 52

I suspect this is another cultural form that fed into pornography such as Byron’s Don Juan and The Lustful Turk. Need to look into more of this kind of slave narrative. Which came first? The examples Blassingame cited date from as early as the 1600s, so they may have informed later 19th century slave narratives written by blacks.

(I acknowledge that Blassingame’s conclusions are not universally accepted by slave history scholars.)

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