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Different historians have presented different versions of slavery in America, often taking a subjective and biased perspective that portrays one side as victims and the other as culprits. However, Kolchin sees it as a three-way discourse that requires objective analysis of historical accounts of slavery. One, there’s the victim-slaves’ story, two, the culprit-salve masters’ story, and then in between, is the truth. The author seeks to find a converging point for these different perspectives to portray the real picture of the nature of slavery, and understand its social and economic impact on slaves, slave owners, and the American society in general. This approach broadens the discourse on slavery not only by desisting from the sympathetic tone adopted by historians who focused of the slaves’ perspective, but by incorporating the views of non-slave holding whites, slave masters, and the legal system.
Consequently, Kolchin’s goal is to wade through the wide array of biased accounts as presented by slaves who regarded themselves as victims of a racially discriminative and socially unjust society, and the slaveholders who believed they were doing the slaves a favor and were blind to the inhumane treatment they (slaves) had to endure. Controversy over the issue is not helped by the varied perspectives adopted by late 19th century historians. The book’s critical analysis of the opinions of other historians presents a balanced view of slavery that desists from labeling wholesale condemnation on the slaveholders or portraying slaves as helpless victims imprisoned to eternal servitude. Thus, Kolchin’s American Slavery plays the role of a sieve that separates fact from myth, truth from lies. He achieves this by bringing in new facts through primary evidence without obscuring the historiographical accounts of previous researchers.
Perhaps the most vocal point the book makes is Kolchin’s argument that despite their rebellious attitudes and attempts to resist being reduced into robotic creatures by their white masters, the slaves were affected psychologically. Their human dignity undermined through the brutal torture they suffered and forced separation from family members when some slaves were sold off. This inhuman treatment of fellow human beings, Kolchin suggests, is the irredeemable shame that slavery so irascibly cast on the collective conscience of America’s white society. Kolchin underscores this fact in Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom by comparing American slavery to servitude in Brazil and the Caribbean region and serfdom in Russia (Kolchin, 1987). While there were similarities in terms of forced labor and poor living conditions, the institutionalization and commercialization of slavery in America, coupled with segregation under the Jim Crow laws, accentuates the severity and inhumanity of American slavery.
This notwithstanding, however, Kolchin refuses to acknowledge the pro-slave-as-victims perspective of the 70s and 80s historians that suggested that slavery led to the marginalization of slaves and subsequent development of “slave culture and slave communities” (Green, 2012). Instead, he argues, slavery gave rise to “a uniquely African-American culture” as a result of the incorporation of elements from the white culture by the slaves into their African cultural heritage. This observation underscores the book’s emphasis on primary evidence as reflected in the diversity of the American culture today. As he notes in Sphinx on the American Land: The Nineteenth-Century South in Comparative Perspective, understanding American slavery and its impact on the American society should not be limited to a comparison between the slave-holding south and the non-slaving holding north in terms of their socio-cultural differences, but also considering how “cohesion and variation have existed within the south’s borders over time” (Kolchin, 2003, p. 39). This stance illustrates Kolchin’s open-minded approach to research and integration of varied perspectives.
Nevertheless, the book’s biggest shortcoming is the monotonously narrative structure the author adopts in presenting his findings. This technique has the effect of making the reading a boring and laborious task, more so for readers whose interest is not purely academic. Perhaps the book could have made an interesting reading if the author had incorporated interviews from people who had experienced slavery, newspaper articles, and specific personal anecdotes to add flavor to the dry narrative presentation. Perhaps, again, the author’s intention was not to create an aesthetic reading for romantics, but to present a factual and accurate analysis of slavery in America for the knowledge/fact-seeking academic mind. And as far as facts go, to expect anything other than a dry reading is to miss the distinction between fact and myth. On this score Kolchin is brilliant, because he presents facts in their direst, unadulterated form.