Program

Events

Generations of Captivity : A History of African-American Slaves

September 11, 2003 // 12:00am

Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves
A Book Launch with author Ira Berlin

Ira Berlin, Distinguished University Professor, Department of History, University of Maryland, author; Adele Alexander, Associate Professor of History, George Washington University, commentator

Slavery has been the norm in the American experience, Ira Berlin noted in a Division of United States Studies program devoted to his Generations of Captivity. The United States condoned slavery for far many more years than it has lived without the "peculiar institution," which was long central to the economic, political and cultural life of the nation. It remains a pervasive problem in American life, as evidenced by the current spate of movies, television docudramas, and new monuments and museums devoted to slavery, as well as the debate over reparations. The study of slavery, Berlin commented, "tells us something about ourselves as a people."

Berlin, perhaps the nation's preeminent historian of the subject, sees slavery as consisting of two equally important though seemingly contradictory phenomena. Slavery was violence and death, arising from a system of domination of human beings that was endorsed by the state. But slavery was also life and creativity: the creativity of slaves, who fashioned a rich legacy of religion and families, music and dance, philosophy and culture without which American life would be impoverished. It is only by assessing this creative power of slavery in the context of the violence of the system as a whole that historians can begin to understand the importance and impact of slavery.

A single snapshot is insufficient to depict slavery, as both Berlin and Adele Alexander emphasized. Slaves were agents as well as victims, maintaining a vibrant culture while negotiating the terms of their captivity as best they could. In Generations of Captivity, Prof. Berlin describes slavery as five chronologically overlapping sets of "generations."

1) The Charter Generations of Africans in North America before the plantation system emerged were made up of slaves who were intimately familiar with European culture and worked to integrate themselves into the larger society. Their identity was fluid; almost one-fifth of them eventually gained their freedom.

2) The late seventeenth to early nineteenth centuries saw the emergence of tobacco, rice and sugar plantations, and with their heavy demands for labor, exploitation increased for what Berlin calls the Plantation Generations. Their members worked harder and died younger. In this period, large parts of the United States moved from a "society with slaves," in which slavery is incidental to public or communal interaction, to one of a "slave society," in which every interaction is colored and shaped by the influences of slavery.

3) The effects of the ideological shifts that came with the American, French, and Haitian revolutions in the late eighteenth century were crucial to the slave experience. The language of liberty, equality and fraternity divided the owner class. The Revolutionary Generations of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries led the North to abandon slavery, increasing the country's free black population and leading to a reconstruction of black life as the African-American community developed a new economy, schools and churches – even as the controls on slaves in the Southern coastal states hardened in response. It was during this period as well that slaves and ex-slaves began to identify themselves with Africa as a whole rather than with their particular tribe or local group.

4) Between 1810 and 1861, more than a million slaves in the Migration Generations endured what Berlin describes as the Second Middle Passage, during which they were forced across the continent to new cotton and sugar plantations in the southern interior. This was the period during which families and communities were ripped apart and the black belt become economically dominant.

5) Finally, the Freedom Generations of the Civil War and post-Civil War periods faced the task of defining freedom for themselves as they reconstructed families and community institutions.

Prof. Alexander emphasized the importance of understanding slavery as changing along with the larger society. She described Prof. Berlin's categories as a crucial ordering of the chaos that can characterize the study of history, and particularly of a facet of history that existed largely outside the notice of historians for many decades.


Philippa Strum, Director of US Studies (202/691-4129)

Wilson Center Photo Gallery

Browse or share photos from the Wilson Center’s events.

To Attend an Event

Unless otherwise noted:

Meetings listed on this page are free and open to the public. Reservations are not required unless otherwise noted. All meetings take place at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. Please see map and directions. Allow time for routine security procedures. A photo ID is required for entry.

To confirm time and place, contact Maria-Stella Gatzoulis on the day of the event: tel. (202) 691-4188. Check this page for the latest updates and notices.