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Gone With the Wind

RUNAWAY SLAVES: Rebels on the Plantation, 1790-1860;\o7 By John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger; (Oxford University Press: 456 pp., $35)\f7

July 04, 1999|IRA BERLIN | Ira Berlin is the author of "Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America."

The current collapse of affirmative action and the resegregation of American society has led the American people back to first causes: the nearly three centuries of slavery that shaped American race relations. The result has been an outpouring of films ("Glory," "Amistad," "Shadrach" and "Beloved"), TV miniseries (PBS's four-part "Africa in America"), public monuments (at least half a dozen including the National Park Service's memorial to nearly 200,000 black Civil War soldiers), museum exhibits by the dozens and an avalanche of books. According to one count, some 60 books about slavery have been published during the last year. Not since the Civil War abolished slavery and the civil rights movement transformed the status of black people in the United States has there been such extraordinary engagement with slavery. Amid this renascence, the history of slavery is being rewritten.

Standing at the fore of this reinterpretation is the matter of the slaves' opposition to their captivity. Resistance cuts to the heart of the meaning of slavery, for it speaks both to the depth of the slaves' determination not to be reduced to a mere extension of the slave owners' will and to the lengths to which slaveholders--who celebrated their own freedom--went to deny that most valued prize to their slaves.

And if resistance stands at the heart of any appreciation of slavery, flight from slavery represents the most telling form of resistance, particularly in the United States, where the fugitive slave became emblematic of the slaves' desire for freedom. Few American slaves engaged in open insurrection, an activity that was all but suicidal in a society in which slaves were vastly outnumbered and outgunned. But almost all slaves partook in the routine insubordination--malingering, tool breaking, theft, for example--that could not overturn the system of slavery but provided slaves a measure of satisfaction and sometimes material comfort.

Flight stood somewhere between these two poles. Like open rebellion, it required careful planning and a conscious decision to break with the slave order, as well as a sober recognition that failure would entail severe consequences. Like day-to-day resistance, flight could also be a means to secure a respite from the world that was marked by humiliation, deprivation and exploitation and perhaps even a chance to escape bondage entirely.

Precisely because of its significance, flight has been subject to numerous historical inquiries. But no one has yet explored the fugitives' world and its meaning for the slave experience more deeply and with greater sophistication than John Hope Franklin, professor emeritus at Duke University and long the doyen of African American history, and Loren Schweninger, professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and the editor of a massive collection of petitions relating to slavery. Their "Runaway Slaves" greatly enhances our understanding of the system of slavery as it developed in the American South during the 19th century and the slaves' determination to resist the plantation regime.

Franklin and Schweninger confirm the fugitives' ubiquity. On the eve of the Civil War, some 50,000 slaves--according to a most conservative calculation--fled their owners annually. This astounding number, amounting to more than one-tenth of the slave population over the course of a decade, meant that few slaveholders did not experience the loss of some--doubtless more than one--of their slaves at one time or another, and that nearly every slave knew or knew of a fugitive, even if he or she did not try to escape.

Such numbers take on even greater weight when it is understood that young men comprised the vast majority of runaways, that proportionally few women took flight and that Africans fled in groups, while African Americans fled on their own. But Franklin and Schweninger do not dwell upon these statistics, although such an inquiry would tell much about the slave family and relations between men and women within the antebellum black community, subjects that have lately attracted renewed interest. Instead, they address the meaning of slave flight by inspecting hundreds, perhaps thousands, of cases gleaned from a careful reading of runaway advertisements and judicial and legislative records. Their close analysis reveals that flight was not a single phenomenon but many, because runaway slaves had different motives, strategies, tactics and goals. Indeed, as Franklin and Schweninger note, to classify fugitives "does injustice to the complexities of the human experience."

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