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Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves
Ira Berlin
Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press / Harvard University Press, 2003.
$29.95, 374 pages, ISBN: 0-674-01061-2.

Gerald Butters
Aurora University

Ira Berlin has always canvassed at the “larger picture.” He has bucked a trend that has dominated the historical profession for the past thirty years—the increased fragmentation and specialization of the historical field. While the preponderance of historians have written in their narrow field of expertise, often only addressing the other individuals who work in their narrow subfield, Ira Berlin has tackled some of the major issues in American history—slavery, race and American-ness. His willingness to construct meta-histories that involve centuries, generations of individuals, and numerous nations makes him a unique and daring type of historian. It takes the bravado of a major historian who has already earned his reputation to create a work like Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves. Junior scholars perhaps do not have the breadth of knowledge, years of experience or willingness to propose their master narrative before the discipline (or perhaps have the funding) to produce a work of Berlin’s scope and depth. But his Generations of Captivity also unmasks a major problem when constructing such grand narratives—the loss of individual characters in history; the human being with his or her own unique life experience.

Generations of Captivity is a masterful work. In this volume, Berlin offers a major reinterpretation of the experience of slavery, tracing the generations of slaves and their masters and the unique historical circumstances each group lived under. One of the most influential historical essays in the last twenty-five years, Berlin’s “Time, Space and the Evolution of Afro-American Society in British Mainland North America,” was the genesis for this book. In his seminal essay, Berlin argued that historians had oversimplified slavery in the antebellum South by constructing an all-purpose, all-inclusive institution. Over the last twenty-five years, Berlin has succinctly illustrated how time, space and place were all significant parameters of struggle, control and existence in the framework of slavery. Berlin has spent his career countering the homogenization of slavery and a static vision of slave culture. He began in this critical essay to illustrate the distinctive regionalization of African-American slave communities.

In this Generations of Captivity, Berlin takes the multitude of Africans and African-Americans in slavery and divides them into five generations—the Charter Generation, the Plantation Generation, the Revolutionary Generation, the Migration Generation and the Freedom Generation. Berlin demonstrates how each generation experienced conditions and constructed their lives in ways different from those of their forefathers and ancestors. Berlin describes the Charter Generation as “cosmopolitan,” with “knowledge of the larger Atlantic world” and a “chameleonlike ability to alter their identity" [p. 6]. Their children and grandchildren—the Plantation Generation—were “not nearly as fortunate” facing a “catastrophic confrontation with large-scale staple production” which “debased African and African American life" [p. 6]. The Revolutionary Generations were able to “secure their freedom, reconstitute their families” and remake their religious life but thousands of others passed on the chains of slavery to their children [p. 6]. This Migration Generation was forced from the southern seaboard across the breadth of America where they “constructed a new slave society in the southern interior” while others “fled north to create a free one" [p. 7]. This finally was the Freedom Generation who met new challenges during the Civil War and Reconstruction era.

Several important theses gird Berlin’s book. First, in keeping with the dominant historical scholarship of the past forty years, he demonstrates that slaves were not passive victims but that they and their owners constantly renegotiated the terms of their captivity. Berlin describes how urban members of the Plantation Generation often contested their slavery and exhibited their dignity through fine clothing that often galled their white city brethren [p. 79]. He also explains how the renting of slaves during the Migration Generations was often desirable for the rentee as “playing buyer against seller, slaves maneuvered to get the best deal for themselves, rejecting some buyers and hirers and approving others" [p. 222].

A second important theoretical point in Generations of Captivity is Berlin’s distinction between societies with slaves and slave societies. This important distinction marked geographical variations over intervals of time. Berlin argues that “what distinguished societies with slaves was the fact that slaves were marginal to the central productive process" [p. 9]. This allowed a degree of fluidity in such communities that was not found in slave societies. It does not mean that life was less harsh for slaves living in “societies with slaves.” In fact, their existence could be quite brutal, often without the network of support often found in slave societies.

One of the fundamental theoretical problems in creating a work as all-encompassing as Generations of Captivity is its larger collective emphasis which often eliminates or de-emphasizes the personal or the individual story. Within the dialogue that we create about slavery it is fundamentally important, perhaps more critical than just about any other subject in human history, to allow the slave to tell his or her own story (or to allow the historian to recreate the existence of the slave). One cannot imagine a meta-history of the Holocaust, or the Armenian massacre, or the genocide against Native Americans, without allowing the victims of these human abominations to speak or to have their stories told. This is where Generations of Captivity is lacking. Within the first few generations, Berlin often shares collective experiences but does not tell the story of individual slaves. As the narrative continues, Berlin increasingly tells such personal stories. One may excuse Berlin’s neglect for lack of historical evidence in the early generations of American slaves. But the work on the early African-American slave experience has widely broadened over the last thirty years.

For human beings to understand the barbarous nature of slavery and for such readers to re-align their beliefs, the historian must consciously include examples of personal experience. Like it or not, it is the emotional and the empathetic that often moves the human intellect. Grand historical narratives, such as Generations of Captivity have the difficulty of striking a balance between major trends and universal human experiences and the singular individual expression of human existence.

This is not to deny Berlin’s position as a masterful historian. His tables at the conclusion are an important tool for any teacher of slavery and his notes are impeccable. While Generations of Captivity does not include a bibliography, one is not needed because the author’s divisional scheme serves as a tool for locating the major works in a subfield. For example, Berlin’s epilogue on the Freedom Generations provides an exhausting list of primary and secondary sources on the African American experience in the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. Key works by historians such as W.E.B.  DuBois, Joel Williamson and Jacqueline Jones are included.

While Generations of Captivity includes a few interesting lithographs and indispensable maps, curiously there is a lack of photographic evidence and a paucity of illustrations. This volume, though, and (especially) Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (1998), cement Berlin’s reputation as one of our major scholars on the institution of slavery.



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