Thursday, July 19, 2007

Susan O'Donovan's "Becoming Free in the Cotton South"

Susan E. O'Donovan is Associate Professor of African and African American Studies and of History at Harvard University. She is the co-editor of the forthcoming Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867, series 3, volume 1, Land and Labor, 1866-1867 and volume 2, Land and Labor, 1865.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book, Becoming Free in the Cotton South, and reported the following:
I turned to page 99 and found southwest Georgia’s slaveholders under the gun: where they have been and where they will remain for much of the book. Not just from slavery’s external enemies (abolitionists) and Union soldiers (the Civil War is moving into its third and very bloody year), but from their slaves. The war has opened up many more of those interstices – weak spots, if you will, in slaveholders’ regimes – that enslaved men and women had long struggled to exploit to their own advantage. Here, the discussion focuses in on that most mundane problem of delivering the mail, a job that has fallen to slaves as white men have fallen in war.

“No longer willing to trust ‘the mails’ after Sherman had swept through the state, Howell Cobb’s extended family likewise resorted to relaying messages by slave. ‘If you write to Howell by this boy Scipio,’ Lucy advised Mary, ‘we will forward it [to Macon].”

It “was a dangerous game slaveholders were playing. For when the messages were verbal,” as was increasingly the case during the war when supplies of all kinds began to run short, “slaves not only conveyed” those messages, “but stood in a position to rearrange them, manipulating, with the words they had been instructed to share, relations between themselves and their owners.”

As George Davis, an overseer, understood too well, he had no alternative but to take slave Sam at his word that disaster had struck an outlying satellite of the master’s plantation, and that he, Davis would have to send a rescue party: all on the word of a slave.

Yet, as I go on to observe on page 99, enslaved men and women could not step out of their pasts, nor imagine their way free of slavery. It established particular constraints – shaping what they aspired to, shaping what they could do – which is the fundamental lesson I want to convey in this book.

“The mobility of salt making, the postal service of slaves, as well as the countless responsibilities that came their way as white men disappeared to the front … extended slaves’ own networks of communication and action and provided new mechanisms by which to chip away at the system that ensnared them. But as black southwest Georgians fashioned strategies of action from wartime developments, they did so within the framework of the social and productive lives they had configured for themselves before secession.”

In short, the freedoms former slaves would eventually create for themselves would be conditioned by what they had been, what they had done, and what they had endured in the past.
Read an excerpt and learn more about Becoming Free in the Cotton South at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue