H-Net Review

Alex Bontemps. The Punished Self: Surviving Slavery in the Colonial South. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2001. x + 224 pp.  Note on sources, notes, and index. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-8014-3521-8.

Reviewed for H-South by Sean Condon <scondon@messiah.edu>,
Department of History, Messiah College

Searching for the Enslaved Subject

H ow did Africans and their descendants respond to the processes of
enslavement in the Americas?  Recent works, well attuned to the
peculiarities of time and space, have uncovered many of the creative
adaptations slaves made in their efforts to survive extremely
hostile environments. [1] In  The Punished Self, Alex Bontemps
ranges widely across the southern colonies of colonial British North
America in order to more systematically understand the psychological
constraints that Africans faced in their efforts to survive
enslavement.  According to the author, his work "describes the
enslavement of captive Africans and their Creole descendants as a
systematic assault on their sense of self" (p. ix). Through close
readings of the private records left by slave owning elites like
William Byrd, Landon Carter, and Henry Laurens, as well as
advertisements for runaway slaves and other items found in colonial
newspapers, Bontemps delineates an essential dilemma for captive
Africans. As people brought from an alien environment, they had an
identity thrust upon them, an identity based on racial subordination
and objectification.  In order to survive slavery with any
independent "sense of self," these enslaved men and women had to
appear as if they acquired this identity without completely
embracing it.

To explain how this central dilemma was structured, Bontemps divides
his study into three distinct thematic parts.  Part One focuses on
the ways that southern slave owners represented enslaved Africans.
Throughout this first section, Bontemps explains that while southern
elites could not help but notice the presence of blacks all around
them, they nearly always described these men and women as objects.
Compared to visitors to the South like Philip Vickers Fithian, or
even to West Indian planters like Edward Long, white southerners
appeared extremely reluctant to talk about individual "blacks as
thinking, seeing, and feeling subjects" (p. 4).

Bontemps argues that the silence concerning black subjectivity not
only made the recovery of black culture very difficult, it also
actually aided in the process of creating a slave society: "Emblems
of the power, prestige, and complacent self-image of those who
presumed to own them, blacks were of greatest benefit to the widest
number and range of people if their subjectivity could be
overlooked, thereby fostering the assumption that they were devoid
of any capacity for self-regard or respect" (p. 27).  In other
words, this erasure of subjectivity was necessary because of the
violence required to turn uncooperative Africans into productive
laborers.  The enslavement process--getting alien Africans to
understand what was expected of them as slaves--required the
constant use, or at least the threat, of physical violence to
convince the enslaved that submission to the authority of their
owner was of utmost importance.

While southern slave owners viewed slaves in many different ways,
Bontemps finds that their inability, or unwillingness, to recognize
the subjectivity of slaves is nearly ubiquitous in the South
throughout the colonial period, for it characterizes the surviving
records of practically every southern slave owner, whether they
styled themselves generous, moderate paternalists, or stern,
authoritarian patriarchs.

Chapters five through seven comprise Part Two of the book, which
moves from a focus on the representation of the enslaved to consider
how "the cultural assault of enslavement was initiated" (p. ix).
Chapter five, which primarily investigates runaway slave
advertisements from colonial newspapers, describes how slave owners
in the colonial south distinguished between "sensible Negroes" and
unassimilated "outlandish new Negroes." "Sensible" slaves were,
according to the slave owning community, those who understood "their
innate limitations as human beings, or, at a minimum, an
accommodation by them to their condition and an appreciation of the
opportunity enslavement had afforded them" (p. 99).  In other words,
whites believed that in order for enslaved Africans to become
"sensible,"  they not only had to begin to speak and act like
colonists of English descent, they also had to realize and accept
their lowly place within colonial society.

Chapter six seeks to understand the methods by which "outlandish"
slaves were turned into "sensible" ones.  A close reading of runaway
advertisements suggests that the "seasoning" process was inherently
violent, and this violence had considerable psychological effects.
Enslaved Africans had to realize that in order to survive, they
would have to submit and to endure their suffering in silence.
Bontemps argues that this silence served implicitly to sanction the
status quo: "[I]n order to ensure the survival of all, the victim's
violation and emasculation had to be endured, but to endure was to
sanction slavery's original sin.  Those who were directly assaulted,
in that sense, were victimized by their own victimization.  It would
have been difficult for black people in the colonial South to avoid
the implication that they were exploited...because they were
exploitable" (p. 117).

Chapter seven describes the dangers waiting for blacks who tested
the limits imposed upon them.  Because they faced quick and harsh
retribution if they appeared defiant, slaves had to be careful to
avoid any behavior that could be construed as "impudent" if they
wished to escape punishment. At the same time, however, "...life on
the edge or near the boundary...offered the greatest possibility of
self-proclamation and affirmation" (p. 120).  Given the dire
consequences of failure, surviving both the physical and psychic
dangers of slavery required that slaves be willing and able to
"build a life for themselves in the narrow margins between total
submission and open defiance" (p. 133).  In addition to not
overstepping the very fine and amorphous line between being
"sensible" and being "impudent," slaves also had to try to "redefine
defiance so that it could encompass what others saw as
accommodation" (p 121).

In Part Three, Bontemps argues that efforts to develop a "sense of
self" while simultaneously trying to avoid being perceived by whites
as "impudent," led to what he calls the "Creole dilemma."  When used
in the context of cultural transformation, "Creole" has usually
stood for people of African descent who were born in North
America.[2] Bontemps uses the term in more of a cultural sense --
creolization is the process whereby captive men and women become
"sensible Negroes," wherever they happen to have been born.  Thus,
becoming "Creole" meant undergoing cultural change, but as Bontemps
argues, "...for blacks living in a slave society it [creolization]
was experienced in the concrete as forced acculturation that worked
as a process of subjection and marginalization.  To survive was to
become creolized and thus to choose adaptation as a means of
surviving, but forced acculturation fused adaptation to subjection
as an expression of self-denial" (p. 142).  So, adaptation required
submission, and the slave who wished to avoid swift punishment
needed to display that submission whenever they were being observed
by whites: "For those who survived enslavement in the colonial
South, the drama of their enslavement meant playing the part of a
racially subordinate slave and thus acting like a Negro" (p. 149).

One dangerous possibility would be to practice this repeated
behavior to the point where it became internalized.  However, even
if the behaviors were not internalized, and the enslaved individuals
remained fully conscious that their outward behavior belied their
inner beliefs, "...from a slave owning perspective...acceptance of
the part was what a 'sensible Negro' would do" (p. 148).  Successful
deception did allow the enslaved to carve out spaces where they
could pursue their quests for freedom and community, but this
deception was fraught with dangers from every direction.

The author's thematic approach to the subject of enslavement
generates both strengths and weaknesses.  Bontemps reads elite
sources extremely closely, which enables him to identify subtle but
important patterns, contradictions, ironies, and dilemmas.  For just
one example, his reading of a colonial newspaper piece about a free
black man known for his medical skills allows Bontemps to locate an
interesting and subtle paradox facing slave owners: "On the one hand
was the demand that captives be culturally assimilated as fully and
quickly as possible; on the other hand was the need [to] not break
'their hearts' to such a degree that their will to survive would be
diminished or eliminated.  The irony of course is that something of
their former selves, the selves from which enslavement was to save
them, had to survive in order for captives to become what owners
wished and needed them to become" (p. 147).

Bontemps also provides a number of imaginative metaphors that allow
students of slavery in the colonial South to conceptualize the
problem of slavery in novel ways.  In Part One, which is entitled
"Spotlights and Shadows," the author repeatedly shows how the
self-image of the colonial gentry was generated by the way these
elites constructed images of their slaves; in effect, the "light"
that elites shone on themselves inevitably cast shadows on those
around them.

While Bontemps provides important insights into the process of
enslavement in the abstract, readers will have some difficulty
following the author's rapid moves across time and space as he
strings multiple primary sources together to make particular points.
Another minor quibble is the fact that the author interprets
numerous visual representations of slaves, arguing that they provide
an important source for understanding the objectification process,
but no reproductions of any of the paintings discussed are included
in the text, so it is difficult for the reader to see exactly how
Bontemps uses the paintings to make his arguments.  (The author does
direct the reader to where these images may be found.)

A more fundamental problem derives from the lack of a clear
geographical and temporal context for the author's unit of analysis.
While Bontemps does occasionally contrast the experience of the
colonial South with the West Indies, it is often unclear what parts
of the enslavement process are operative whenever and wherever the
institution of slavery has existed, and what elements were unique
to, or emphasized in, the colonial South.

Bontemps displays a thorough and lucid understanding of the
secondary literature on slavery in the colonial South, but it would
have been helpful (to this reader at least) if at some point the
central dynamics of enslavement in the colonial South would have
been compared to the process as it unfolded elsewhere in the
Americas.  In addition, it is surprising that no connection was
attempted between what Bontemps finds for the colonial South, and
the arguments about slavery as a system of personal relationships
that Orlando Patterson made in his comparative study.[3]

Despite this critique, Bontemps has created an imaginative and
challenging work that provides a well-crafted template outlining the
dynamics and psychic consequences of the process of enslavement.
What we need are more studies that try to determine what the content
of this form of acculturation looked like in different times and
places.  It appears very likely that the central problem articulated
here will be the site of rich future investigations.


[1]. Essential recent works include Michael A. Gomez, _Exchanging
Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the
Colonial and Antebellum South_ (Chapel Hill: University of North
Carolina Press, 1998); James Sidbury, _Ploughshares Into Swords:
Race, Rebellion and Identity in Gabriel's Virginia, 1730-1810_ (New
York: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Ira Berlin, _Many Thousands
Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery_ (Cambridge: Belknap Press
of Harvard University Press, 1998); and Philip D. Morgan, _Slave
Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and
Lowcountry_ (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press,

[2]. For a brief explanation of "Creole," see Berlin, _Many
Thousands Gone_, pp. 381-82.

[3]. Orlando Patterson, _Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative
Study_ (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982).

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