Agency is still possible when one is a victim, Robert Cherry wrote
Brown University economist Glenn Loury invited his friend Robert Cherry, economist and professor emeritus at Brooklyn College, to discuss on Glenn’s Substack the controversy over Florida’s African American history curriculum standards supported by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“The controversy over the Florida African American history curriculum is really over the relative merits of agency versus victimization,” wrote Cherry (pictured, left).
“The critics essentially claim that presenting examples of the agency enslaved blacks used for their own benefit would whitewash US slavery,” he continued. “To these critics, only a persistent and unending presentation of its horrors is appropriate, regardless of what realities those presentations elide.”
However, the evidence for the conditions of slaves is more nuanced, Cherry argued.
For example, studies done by “committed leftists” such as historian Robert Fogel found the diet of slaves and their housing was generally decent, and historian Herbert Gutman found most slaves were raised by two parents, according to Cherry.
However, “during the first half of the twentieth century the slavery literature was awash with presentations that minimized the system’s brutality, and in response [historians] Stanley Elkins and Kenneth Stampp overcorrected,” Cherry wrote.
“As a result of the extreme terror enslaved men and women endured, Elkins believed that they adopted a childlike quality of complete submission, identifying their masters as father figures.”
“Kenneth Stampp believed as a result of terror and brutalization, enslaved blacks adopted the pose of ‘a fawning dependent,’ producing a ‘process of infantilization.’ According to Stampp, family values were so destroyed that most fathers and even some mothers regarded their children with indifference.”
While both historians thought they were accurately assessing the horrors of slavery, they each “unfortunately reinforced negative images of enslaved men and women: that they lacked a strong work ethic, lacked a strong commitment to the nuclear family, and lacked sexual discipline,” according to Cherry.
Even more, for “for W.E.B. Dubois, later E. Franklin Frazier, and ultimately, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, their work explained the high rate of black out-of-wedlock births.”
A new generation of historians, such as Herbert Gutman and Eugene Genovese, emphasized how black slaves utilized agency to seek to make a better situation out of the very limited resources offered to them. For example, Gutman found that on larger plantations, more than three-quarters of all enslaved children were raised in stable, two-parent families.
Additionally, while black slave women were often the subject of abuse, many black female slaves avoided rape because “the whites knew they had black men who would rather die than stand idly by,” according to Genovese.
“In short, slavery in the United States was a dehumanizing practice,” Cherry acknowledged. “It is remarkable that so many enslaved people managed nevertheless to preserve their humanity and to work for their own betterment and that of their families.”
“Writing these efforts out of our history would do a profound disservice both to them and to our students.”
IMAGE: American Enterprise Institute