BrANCH 2012: Rethinking Honour and Community in the Antebellum South

Saturday’s opening session was “Rethinking Honour and Community in the Antebellum South: A Roundtable,” chaired by Christopher Olsen and including panelists David Brown, Catherine Clinton, Steven Deyle, Becky Fraser, Lorri Glover, and Emily West.

Olsen’s introductory remarks focused mostly on Bert Wyatt-Brown and his influence on the field.

David Brown was first up. He provided the historical context for the eras in which John Blassinghame’s Slave Community and Bert Wyatt-Brown’s Southern Honor were published. He noted that fewer works on southern honor than slave community have appeared since the two books’ publication. Brown identified two historiographical trends. The first was the challenge to the honor thesis by the modern capitalism interpretation and work on the cosmopolitan intellectual mind of southern planters. Michael O’Brien’s work in particular rejects the notion of southern honor. The 2nd historiographical trend was the emergence of the southern middle class interpretation. Brown wonders if this latter interpretation will grapple with the honor thesis. He concluded with an important observation echoed by others: The chronological set-up of BWB’s book makes it hard to grasp the effect of change over time on honor.

Cartherine Clinton delivered her remarks with acerbic wit. She began with a historiographical overview of slavery scholarship by devoted most of her remarks to BWB, whom she noted loves being the center of controversy. She applauded Southern Honor as the 1st non-female historical work that placed women and sexuality at the forefront of southern historiography and noted that younger female historians failed to appreciate BWB’s pioneering effort in gender history.

Steven Deyle discussed work on a forthcoming book on the murder of slave trader (James McMillan) in Memphis. (The murder involved Nathan Bedford Forrest in some way.) Deyle believes there are different types of honor, not one code. He emphasized Elliot Gorn and Ken Greenberg’s works and agreed with Greenberg’s argument that honor culture is a foreign language to us today. He argued that honor was important to slave traders (“land pirates”) and ended with an overview of prominent slave traders.

Becky Fraser observed that Blassinghame’s Slave Community bound African American slaves together as a people, but recent work has questioned his cohesiveness thesis. She then used Edward P. Jones’ Pulitzer-winning novel The Known World to explain the challenges to notions of slave community.

Lorri Glover discussed the effect of Southern Honor on writing since publication. She started by noting that Southern Honor was part of a historiographical explanation of The South, but variations of honor in it are the exception, not the rule; BWB sees honor culture as monolithic. She noted that the JSH reflects the influence of Southern Honor in its disparate pieces and challenges to its thesis.  She also proposed that books like Southern Honor are rarely written today, with the focus more on specialized, evidentiary-based studies. Academic publishers want shorter books, which limits historians’ imagination and research agendas.

Emily West focused on the idea of slave communities rather than a monolithic slave community. She emphasized that southern neighborhoods and communities were not just identified by race. She also noted the historiographical turn away from romanticizing slave agency, which Eric Foner called the “new cynicism.” She argued that most slaves gravitated toward self-identity and family preservation, seeing family as the bulwark against the oppression of bondage.

Audience

Catherine Clinton: She noted that Saidiya V. Hartman’s Scenes of Subjugation offered the most direct counter to Blassinghame’s book and offered that commercial publishing was more open to “big books” than academic presses.

Audience member (Larry?): Shared a great anecdote about BWB, Vernon Burton, Clinton, and Theda Perdue in a Statesboro, Georgia, bar. A local “yeoman” approached BWB in his trademark bow tie and accosted him, which led Burton to come over and proclaim about BWB, “he’s good people.” He connected the episode to the conflation of respectability and honor.

Audience member: Was there honor within slave communities? [My own internal answer was immediate: Certainly.] West responded by saying that it was present within slave families. Fraser noted its presence among enslaved men. Clinton argued that finding it among slave women was virtually impossible, as women’s honor was an object on which women couldn’t act.

Audience member: Charles Joyner’s Down by the Riverside and Burton’s In My Father’s House are two big books that go deeply into communities instead of broadly across time and place, using community to develop and explore larger themes. Glover noted that Gordon-Reed’s book on the Hemingses does that.

Frank Towers asked how to write a sweeping southern history narrative when scholars don’t agree that there is a distinct South. Glover observed that people are doing it with The West and noted that it may be affected by the job market. Towers responded by asking what has replaced The South. Clinton said that most scholars are more interested in looking at mountains from afar than climbing the mountaintop of the big book. Larry (mentioned above) concluded the discussion by saying that the deconstruction of big books has left us with scholarly rubble.

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