By the time of the Civil War, Thomas L. Webber shows, American slaves had created for themselves a new and separate culture, combining elements of their African past and their experiences under slavery in the South. How they were able to educate themselves and their children is the story of this book, told in many cases in the words of the slaves themselves.
Historian Webber examines the failure of white slave holders' attempts to teach slaves the lessons of docile obedience, and the growth of a distinct black "society within society." Most planters, he contends, dictated "a carefully constructed set of attitudes and understandings aimed at encouraging. . . willingness to work." But "slave quarter communities" on larger plantations (encompassing about 50% of slaves) learned and perpetuated different cultural "themes": a protective communal spirit, hatred of whites, belief in true Christianity (as opposed to the bogus, hypocritical version of satanic slaveholders), family feeling, fear of white political power, alliance with the spirit world, the impulse to literacy, and the intrinsic value of freedom. Through family, peer group, and the traditional forms of song and story, black slaves passed on a secret and subversive culture. Webber advances much compelling first-hand evidence from slave narratives (transcribed in needlessly annoying "de ol' massa g'win ta. . ." style), but his own account - once a doctoral dissertation - retains the dogged organization and deadly repetition of the genre. (A final chapter comparing education in slave communities to that of a Navaho reservation exemplifies scholarly overkill.) He challenges the view of slavery as a total institution obliterating black identity and culture, and provides valuable documented support for what Faulkner and Uncle Remus have been saying all along. (Kirkus Reviews)