52: Herbert Gutman’s The Black Family

In The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, Herbert Gutman builds on John Blassingame’s strategy of studying slave communities from the inside out to argue that between 1750 and 1925, black families were able to adapt to slavery while retaining cultural traditions, continuous kinship connections, and the “double-headed kin-related household;” they thus created a new African American culture that and strong communities that helped them navigate their lives after freedom.  He thus dispels two common (in the 1970s) scholarly assumptions about black family life: that slavery had destroyed any stable family structures, so that black home life in America was characterized by instability and promiscuity, and that this “pathological” condition of black family life had been growing worse over time.

Like many other scholars around this time, Gutman was very interested in E.P. Thompson’s new social history, which shifted the focus of historical inquiry from relations between groups to relations within them.  To access this information, he uses a wide variety of sources, including plantation records, county census schedules, Freedman’s Bureau Records, family letters, court testimony, literature, anthropological studies, and oral histories.  He also structures the book to follow his own research process, so that the reader follows him back in time from the 20th century to the 1740s, when the plantation system first developed.

In addition to establishing the resiliency of black families, he also established the agentive force within black communities that developed in a space separate from black-white relations.  While the possibility that any community can develop autonomously outside the reach of unequal power relations was questioned even as Gutman was writing, as was the separation of politics and culture, Gutman’s book still goes a long way toward recovering slave families and bringing them into the historical record.

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