Interview with David Doddington, Author of Contesting Slave Masculinity

C12A82F3-59EA-4122-A268-3D86945C93B9David Doddington is a Senior Lecturer in North American History at Cardiff University. His research interests centre on slavery, race, and gender in the antebellum South, with a particular interest in examining resistance, survival, and solidarity within slave communities. Today he speaks with Rachel Herrmann about his new book, Contesting Slave Masculinity in the American South. Find him on Twitter at @d_doddington.

Contesting Slave Masculinity examines the different models of masculinity that developed in slave communities in the antebellum South. Enslaved men thought and cared deeply about their gendered identities and acted accordingly; others in the community bore witness to and judged these identities in the process of creating their own. In the book, I’m most interested in considering how different versions of masculinity operated in relation to one another and in examining the consequences when enslaved people compared different versions of manhood; how they interacted with and viewed the men who created and performed these identities.

Highlighting how enslaved men compared themselves to and competed with one another to establish and validate their gendered identity challenges us to look beyond monolithic models of black masculinity. It asks us to reconsider historiographical themes of solidarity and to move away from viewing resistance to slavery solely as a unifying action. Enslaved men did not believe that there was one route to manhood and enslaved people did not invariably agree that all the choices enslaved men made constituted equal proof of masculine virtues. While engaging with a variety of ideas and actions that contemporaries associated with masculinity, enslaved people made choices, both implicit and explicit, as to what type of man they wanted to be or what type of man they hoped to see. In creating, performing, and justifying their gendered identities enslaved men compared themselves to, competed with, and sometimes denigrated other men’s actions, choices, and identities.

Enslaved men performed their masculinity in different ways in different places, but they could not fulfill every role, in every space, for every person. The disputes and divisions centered around the roles and responsibilities of men, as men, and spoke to broader tensions relating to resistance, solidarity, and survival in slavery. Competing and overlapping masculinities were embedded within the broader power dynamics of enslavement; the identities enslaved men constructed and the choices they made thus informed their interactions with enslaved people, enslavers, and the institution of slavery.

JUNTO: Please describe your revision process from thesis to book.

David Doddington: The transition from PhD to book was a lengthy one. I completed the PhD between 2009-2013, with the book only coming out in 2018. This was partly due to a need to focus on articles and shorter publications to try and get some sort of a look-in for jobs, but also related to how my ideas were developing over time.

Essentially, as I look back on it, the PhD was a bit unwieldy. I focused on examining different types of masculinity that were present in slave communities, but I don’t think I really did much more than note that there were different ways of being a man. As I developed the project, in conversation with sympathetic readers, ex-supervisors, colleagues and friends, I began to focus more on how these different ideals operated in relation to one another, and to consider how gendered identities spoke to broader tensions and disputes surrounding accommodation, resistance, and survival in slavery. Enslaved men could take on different roles, and perform manhood in different ways, but they couldn’t fulfill every role, in every space, and for every person. The disagreements and disputes over the roles and responsibilities of men could have serious effects in the slave community, shaping relationships between enslaved people and affecting responses to bondage and oppression. The length of time it took to transition from PhD to book, then, involved moving beyond highlighting what I took to be an interesting discussion on multiple masculinities existing in slave communities, and, instead, considering how they operated on multiple levels and spoke to “big” debates and questions in the field.

I would also just like to say that I had amazing support from Cambridge University Press throughout the process. Professors Mark Smith, Peter Coclanis, and David Moltke-Hansen were incredibly supportive from the first proposal, offering expert guidance and asking probing questions that were designed to push me further in my analysis. It was a wonderful experience publishing with CUP, and the work of the editorial, management, and marketing teams, including Deborah Gershenowitz, Kristina Deusch, Ruth Boyes, and Amy Lee, has been fantastic.

JUNTO: This is a book about masculinity in the American south, and historians have written about lots of different southern regions. Some of the themes you discuss, such as labor regimes, have historiographically varied quite a lot by region (I’m thinking especially here of Philip Morgan’s Slave Counterpoint, which delineated contrasting labor regimes for the Chesapeake and the Low Country, and Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone, which argued that slavery in the Deep South, cotton south, low country, and Chesapeake all had identifiable characteristics). You’re quite careful throughout the book, when you provide an example from a particular region (like Louisiana) to make a case for similarities across the board. But I have to ask: were there regional differences that contributed to someone’s sense of masculinity?

DD: This a question that engaged me quite early on as I was developing the project and I began by thinking I was going to focus on the lower South. This was partly due to the associations the region had (rightly or wrongly) with a certain type of masculinity predicated on honor and violence, but also because I was thinking about studying masculinity in the context of forced migration and the internal slave trade. As the project developed, though, I wasn’t finding from my sources any clear-cut regional distinction in the values and cultural ideals surrounding masculinity and manhood. The disputes and distinctions I found between men and between different versions of masculinity didn’t seem to be predicated upon region but were instead shaped by individual and collective decisions relating to resistance and survival in slavery.

The opportunities for men to fulfill certain roles could be affected by the work regime they were forced into, or on account of environmental and geographical factors, but broader social and cultural views on masculinity/femininity traveled across the slave south. Even if men struggled to fulfill certain roles associated with manhood—such as the provider/protector role—on account of the demographics of a region or the crop regime, many still believed that activities here reflected their identities as men and tried to act accordingly. While I’m sensitive to the importance of regional distinction, I would say that my approach to this question is influenced by Stephanie Camp’s statement in Closer to Freedom (2004): “for all the important variations attributed to crop, region, and local demographics, American slavery was, above all, a system of economic exploitation, racial formation, and racial domination that when studied in a broad geographic range, reveals strong continuities as well as differences.”

I’m conscious, though, that this is an area where critiques might spur me to dig deeper. My new project, Old Age and American Slavery, requires more sustained engagement with demographic and geographical differences across the south, and so I may find myself responding to this question differently as I move forward.

JUNTO: So tell us about how these different types of masculinity varied according to age.

DD: My new book project, Old Age and American Slavery, generously supported by the Leverhulme Trust, developed out of Contesting Slave Masculinity. Having identified different models of masculinity that existed in US slave communities, and related these to strategies of accommodation, resistance, and survival in bondage, I found myself questioning how age impacted upon the gendered identities enslaved people created. I also wanted to consider how episodes of intergenerational tension complicated existing historiographical debates on solidarity and community dynamics.

I found myself returning to the final sources used in my chapter on violence and leisure, where I noted examples of men who were no longer able or permitted to fight in their leisure time, or who suffered violence at the hands of younger men. I was particularly struck by the death of Moses, “a feeble old man,” who was murdered by King, a fellow slave, in Richmond, 1848. During this beating—occasioned initially over a property dispute—Moses attempted to protect himself by making explicit reference to his advanced age: “King I ain’t fit to die. I don’t want to go to Hell King, don’t kill such an old creature as I.” He even offered King “every cent of money I have got.” Moses hoped that his relative age and comparative debility would save him. He was mistaken: King taunted and beat Moses before drowning him in a puddle of muddy water.

This episode struck me because of the violence of the assault, during which King repeatedly mocked his weaker opponent, interspersing the beating with the pointed request Moses acknowledge “his name was King,” and because of the terror and sadness embedded in Moses’ cries. It led me to think critically about existing work on old age in the slave community. Notwithstanding the violence and suffering inherent to slavery, historians generally agree that older slaves received respect from those who shared their oppressed status and who lauded their guidance.

My research suggests, however, that this type of reverence was not automatically granted. Furthermore, even “respect” granted on account of age could be framed negatively, based as it was on a sense of changed, and often reduced, abilities. Solomon Northup, for example, described how on his Louisiana plantation, “Old Abram . . . [was] a sort of patriarch among us.” However, he also emphasized that Abram had lost physical and mental power through aging: “In his youth he was renowned for his great strength, but age and unremitting toil have somewhat shattered his powerful frame and enfeebled his mental faculties.” There was respect, to be sure. However, it was respect predicated on pity, not parity.

Northup’s use of the trope of aging to reflect his fear of remaining enslaved indicates how the prospect of transitioning into the “old patriarch” of the plantation was not perceived positively: “The summer of my life was passing away; I felt I was growing prematurely old; that a few years more, and toil, and grief, and the poisonous miasma of the swamps would accomplish their work on me—would consign me to the grave’s embrace, to moulder and be forgotten.” Associations of old age with physical decline, social isolation, and even submission to bondage, could shape personal identities, relationships, and community dynamics. Enslaved people who were perceived as old by others sometimes resented, resisted, or rejected such reasoning, leading to tension, division, and strife in slave communities. This, in a nutshell, is what I’m looking to explore in this new project.

JUNTO: Given these examples, let’s revisit the chapter on violence and leisure in the first book (chapter 5). Can you say a little more about why you think these two themes go so well together?

DD: There are a few reasons I think violence and leisure are so entwined in this context. Historians have done tremendous work in showing how significant leisure time was as a means of building communities and allowing enslaved people to construct positive personal identities. The importance of this time, and these spaces, however, could also have negative effects. The public and performative nature of leisure activities, and the competitive activities that enslaved people undertook, meant that winning and losing took place in front of the wider community. This mattered dearly to enslaved people. While leisure could be a time for building friendships and a space for support, it could also be the place where you lost a competition, were beaten up, or simply felt embarrassed and humiliated at how you compared with others. Sometimes this led to immediate violence, and the aggressive forms of competition like boxing and wrestling could occasionally see hierarchies form and tensions be resolved.

However, what I found more interesting, and illuminating as to the significance of conflict among enslaved men, was the importance of grudges and the festering of insults. A significant number of cases explored in my final chapter dealt with men who had fought once before, but who felt they needed to fight again in order to right the outcome. Having once lost, they needed restitution. As just one example, Isham, an enslaved man in Virginia, sought out conflict with Bob by “asking him are you satisfied.” Bob seemed confused and replied, “about what, shucking time?” This only aggravated Isham, who was clearly not over this prior fallout. Isham informed his rival that “if you are I am not,” before attacking him. The fight moved from fists to blades to sticks and, after Bob jumped out of the boat, Isham dealt him a fatal strike to the back of his head.

Enslaved men who crafted a sense of masculine identity through combat or competition relied on demonstrating themselves as superior to another man; for one man to win, though, another had to lose. Irrespective of the shared masculine culture of combat and competition, the winner was almost invariably judged as more of a man than the loser. Some enslaved men refused or were unable to accept the consequences of this. The words, deeds, and actions of enslaved men who fought one another indicate that they recognized the importance of victory and defeat in social spaces and that they would strive to prevent the latter, even if this came at the cost of others.

JUNTO: You and I have talked a lot about archival research, and coming up in PhD programs that trained you to think that you weren’t a historian until you’d visited an archive. But I know you have some opinions to the contrary. Can you describe your approach to sources for this book, and how they’ve shaped your approach to your next one?

DD: When studying slavery, it’s crucial to be conscious of the power dynamics in the production of history and in the fashioning and function of official repositories and archives. These tensions have been discussed by many outstanding scholars in the field, whether thinking about the studies of Michel-Rolph Trouillot and Saidiya Hartman or, more recently, in work by Marisa Fuentes. These scholars say it far better than I ever could, but we must acknowledge the silences, omissions, and violence in and of the archive—these spaces are not, and never have been, a neutral home of historical fact. In the context of how I approach the topic, the simple answer is to say that we must be willing to appreciate a more diverse range of materials and voices when thinking about histories of slavery. It’s about being conscious that “the archive” hides as much as it holds.

None of what I’m saying here is particularly novel—scholars and activists have long emphasized a need to look beyond the type of material that privileges the enslaving class—correspondence, diaries, record books and plantation journals, etc. It is important just to reiterate and respect the fact that formerly enslaved people constructed their own histories—both personal and collective—in the face of institutional violence and oppression, and that these can be found in a vast array of source material that has not always been accorded the same weight inside the academy, whether that means engaging with folklore, fiction, narratives, songs, etc.

In that sense, the vast bulk of the research for this book took place outside of “the archive.” Documenting the American South is truly an incredible resource and I am immensely grateful to the work of librarians, archivists, and digitization experts that made this site accessible. The sources that I found most useful and fulfilling to engage with were fugitive narratives, autobiographies, and interviews with formerly enslaved people. This base included those narratives crafted as a political weapon of black activism and agency in the fight for abolition, memoirs released in the context of Reconstruction and “Redemption,” and the oral histories with formerly enslaved people recorded for the WPA Program in the 1930s. These are fascinating, multi-layered sources, that speak to the personal and collective identities and activities of enslaved people; they allow us to consider how enslaved and formerly enslaved people wished to present themselves to others and, perhaps, to themselves. These sources reveal the complex relations between enslaved people and the dynamic responses people had in the face of enslavement and oppression.

JUNTO: This is a book about how different notions of enslaved manhood created divisions between enslaved peoples. Historians have done similar things in writing about an Iroquois and Creek civil war, and about Native overhunting of game animals. How do you balance your fears about what such a narrative might do with the need to write accurate history?

DD: Over the past few decades, historians have been more conscious of the need to think about tensions, divisions, and discord between enslaved people. Shared oppression could undoubtedly lead to solidarity among enslaved people, but this type of support was neither inevitable nor unquestioned. Communities are built on exclusion as much as inclusion, and enslaved people did not invariably like all the people they were forced to live and work alongside or nearby. These types of tensions could be compounded through the violence and coercive methods that enslavers employed, as well as by the traumatic separation of friends, families, and local support networks that took place through the internal slave trade.

When speaking about the interactions between enslaved men in this book, and in thinking about how enslaved people dealt with one another, I’ve been conscious that people can have foes as well as friends in their day-to-day lives, and of the need to recognize that oppression does not invariably elevate people in their actions or dealings with others. Enslaved people could be abusive, exploitative, and aggressive to one another and slave communities could be as much a home for violence—physical and mental—as any other community of humans. To say as such is not to construct a narrative of pathology or inherent violence among groups. Instead, it’s about rounding out our recognition of enslaved people, as people. Recognizing the humanity of enslaved people means recognizing them, flaws and all. In a sense, it’s about acknowledging that humans do not have to act “heroically” to be worthy of study.

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