59: George Rawick’s From Sundown to Sunup

In From Sundown to Sunup: The Making of the Black Community,  George Rawick stresses the agency and relative autonomy of American slaves “from sundown to sunup” – those few hours when they weren’t expected to work the fields – to create the behaviors and institutions that helped them survive the oppression of slavery.

Rawick has two main theses.  First, he argues that black slaves developed an autonomous community outside of the white environment; this community was shaped by both their experiences in the US and their African heritage.  The backbone of this community was communication among slaves, which relied on travels of free blacks, reading of white newspapers, and the “interplantation” movement of the slaves themselves; it encouraged different levels of resistance, fostered a separate series of religious practices, and supported the continuity of the black family.  It also kept the slaves from having to become “Sambos.”

Second, he argues that there was a connection between the parallel emergence of slavery and capitalism.  I’m not sure I buy this argument, but Rawick claims that racism has European roots; black Africans were seen as rural peasants who represented a longed-for but unreachable past, and therefore slavery and racism were punishment meted out to blacks.  And then racism played an important role in the growth and continuity of slavery and in the development of American culture more generally.

From Sundown to Sunup was one of the earliest books on slavery that treated slaves as subjects and actors instead of as victims and objects; working from an assumption of subjectivity allowed him to create whole worlds based on slave narratives and psychological and psychological theories.  This focus on slaves as conscious, subjective actors also allowed Rawick to overturn two oversimplifying accounts of slave culture: Kenneth Stampp’s argument that slaves lived in a state of cultural chaos, unable to practice their African cultures and unable to understand American culture; and Stanley Elkins’ argument that slave personalities were almost entirely determined by their subordination to authoritarian masters.  Thus, while it suffers from the same lack of verifiable data as do other attempts to reconstruct slave culture (and in Rawick, this lack is particularly exacerbated because he uses slave narratives from the Civil War era to reconstruct slavery in the 17th and 18th centuries), the book still puts forward a theory of racism and a respect for slave subjectivity that continues to impact later works.

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