Black Southerners: 1619 – 1869, by John B. Boles

My copy: 9780813101613

I had to get this book for my Antebellum America class in grad school, and I decided early on I was going to hang onto it. For one thing, the title. When the South is spoken of as a region and a cultural mindset, a crucial element to history actually seems…I think “left out” isn’t too far off. The South is discussed from the white viewpoint, and the “pride” displayed is stereo-typically white pride. But, as Boles’ book shows, there’s a huge element missing in this notion of “Southern heritage” and history: blacks have been in the South nearly as long as whites.

I don’t know why this struck me so much, but it feels true and explains why any time someone speaks of the South, there’s a “white supremacist” undercurrent. Boles’ book, printed in 1984, actually delves much deeper into the issue of Southern culture as it was, including all sides. It’s a dense read for 213 pages, with so much information at the ready. Boles began this work looking for information on religion in Kentucky, which necessitated delving into black religion in the region, and then it spread from there.

I found Black Southerners an interesting read, learning new things with every turn of the page. Boles presents the “institution” of black slavery and the white south as a complex, developed society that would’ve definitely developed along different lines from the Northern states. For some reason, most of the works I’d found before this book seemed to keep the white culture and black culture separate, and “slavery” was just the way the two “races” mingled (though maybe that’s not the best word). That’s a fallacy that’s somehow been allowed to persist; it was all connected, but we just mainly hear slave, slave-master, and that’s it. Nothing else. We’re missing so much.

f3Boles also informed me about something I’d never heard of, but in hindsight would make sense if one delved deeper: there were plenty of free blacks in the South, too, though life certainly wasn’t much easier for them, either.

This is something we just don’t read or hear about. It’s no wonder why a few years ago there was the movement to change the wording of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by removing every instance of the “n” word in the story and replacing the word with “slave.” After reading this book, I knew that couldn’t happen, because not all blacks were slaves, and that does a disservice to the truth. Also, books are products of their times. As much as I hate the word “nigger” and the racism that drips from it, it was the word used during that time to describe blacks. I hate it, but it was historically accurate, and with respect to the truth, it needs to remain.

But that “whitewashing” history and classic texts bullshit is a rant for another day…or week (Heaven knows I could go long enough)

I’ll let Boles explain what he found, from his preface:

My title, of course, makes the point that blacks have been southerners for almost as long as whites have. Indeed, neither the South nor white southerners can be understood without taking into consideration the experience and contributions of those other southerners, the blacks. The South is the blacks’ land too, and many of them identify with it and love it. Properly speaking, southerner is a biracial term. The blacks’ passage toward freedom has been long and arduous, and to a profound degree their experience in the New World constitutes a Middle Passage writ large. With roots in Africa, involuntarily brought to America, they were to find liberty only after two and a half centuries of bondage. Even then, the freedom of freedmen was circumscribed by habit and racism. Their story consists of equal parts of tragedy and courage, but ultimately proclaims that the human spirit is unquenchable. (pg x).

That phrase really opened my eyes and made me think hard: “southerner is a biracial term.” I don’t think many of us have had a chance to think of it that way in our upbringing (and I am a woman from the South).

Even down here, most history on the South comes from pop culture more than good study, with such disparate views as the historically-insulting, nostalgic Gone With the Wind through the menacing Mississippi Burning. There are hundreds of truths to be told, and a long way to go. I haven’t had the chance to see more recent films like Selma yet, to see if some of these much-needed enlightenment moments have begun.


1619–Blacks arrive in Jamestown to be sold as slaves

Boles covers the first blacks dropped onto Virginia’s shore and sold to Jamestown settlers in 1619 to the first few years of Reconstruction, from the slow development of what would become “Southern Culture” and its fracturing after the Civil War. Black Southerners is not that difficult or lengthy a read. It is chock full of information, though–perfect for a college course or someone really interested in Southern/Black History. It definitely gives a more complete picture of the actualities regarding the U.S.’s slave past, and lays out the facts without demonizing or praising.

It’s a very human past, if an unfortunate one in most respect, at least from a 21st century standpoint. I find this a necessary read for anyone who wants a better understanding of slavery in the South and all it entailed. I wouldn’t call it “definitive,” but it’s a great start. After all, it’s been more than 30 years since this was written–I’m sure there’s more and more out there for consumption, too.


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