“I did not know I was a slave until I found out I couldn’t do the things I wanted.”-Frederick Douglass. The historical non-fiction novel, American Slavery: 1619-1877, by Peter Kolchin, describes the overview of slavery in America. This novel specifically focuses on the life of a slave throughout the colonial period all the way through the abolition of slavery.
Kolchin has specialized in slavery and labor in the American South before, and after the Civil War. In the beginning, he describes how America was heavily dependent on coerced labor. Such as how most of the Founding Fathers were slave holders. He portrays how colored people have been through so many struggles and even towards the end segregation followed. Kolchin starts off with the Atlantic Slave Trade, and then shifts his area of focus to the slave’s personal lives.
He describes their everyday life on the field, and their relationship with their owners. He presents the social outcomes that slavery had on many people and how even after the Civil War, hatred for blacks remained. The book explores through the racial mind sets and social structures in the South throughout the 17th and 19th centuries. Peter Kolchin did an incredible job covering the evolution of the institution of slavery and touching down on the economic, social, and religious factors of slavery.
The New York Times Book Review states, “Provides an informed modern history of slavery and its development, and suggests thoughtful, evenhanded conclusions on issues that have not been resolved definitely.” If one was to give thus book a rating it should be 5/5 stars. Every chapter digs into a new topic on slavery that many people may have never known. Just reading the first few sentences of a chapter grabs the reader’s attention and makes the reader want to know more. If one was to read this book they would feel as if, they were living alongside a slave and going through same moments of struggles and happiness. This book is everything that the cover suggests.
Peter Kolchin has maintained skillful organization throughout his writing. He takes the reader on the road to slavery and touches every aspect of their life. Maintaining the same writing style throughout the entire book is important, for the purpose of not making the reader confused. Fist, he divides the book into two chronological periods. For example, the first part focuses on the colonial period (lasting until about 1770) and antebellum (beginning about 1800), both the sections are separated by the turning point in the American Revolution.
This chronological outline can help the reader better appreciate how slavery has emerged tremendously, and even towards the end of it, colored people still struggled to gain independence. He also divides each of the chapters into subsections, each section overlaps onto the idea of the previous one.
For example, chapter 2 is named The Colonial Era, the first section within the chapter started off with introducing what that chapter will be about such as,” Throughout its history, American slavery evolved and changed……” (Page 28, paragraph 1) then, the second section started off with taking that idea into deeper details such as, “American slavery developed within a particular environment, conditioned by particular demographic patterns.”(Page 29, Paragraph 1).
This pattern throughout the book can help the reader in understanding the upcoming information throughout the next chapters. While discussing the evolution of slavery, Kolchin included pieces from other references too. By utilizing another source, the author portrays a better understanding on the subject. For example, in chapter 2 page 60 it states, “Planters’ diaries are filled with entries such as William Byrd’s “I talked with my people” (1740), or Landon Carter’s “I gave my people a holiday this day, notwithstanding my work is so backward”(1772), or George Washington’s “I allowed all my People to go to the races in Alexandria”(1786).”.
These references from slave owners gave much more understanding on the topic of the slave-owner intellect and paternalism. Diaries help to gain more information about any surrounding problems and the relationship between certain masters and slaves. Kolchin also used many references from Federick Douglass, who was a former slave that ran away from his master. For example, on page 178 paragraph 1 it states,” ……unlike the isolated plantation, the city was not conducive to maintaining slave discipline.
“A city slave is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on the plantation,” Frederick Douglass noted bluntly.”. Kolchin used Frederick Douglass as a reference because, it shifts the reader to witness slavery from the perspective of a former slave. He also utilized simile to get information across to the reader. For example, on page 91 paragraph 3 it states,” ……it was clear that Southern Slavery had survived the multiple threats it faced during the Revolutionary era and, like steel tempered by fire, had emerged from that era stronger than ever.”.
During the Revolutionary era, the North started to question slavery and its morality. So, with emancipation in the North, slavery had become more entrenched in the South and was known as a slave state. Kolchin also compared slavery to serfdom in Russia. For example, on page 228 paragraph 2 it states, “In Russia, peasants resisted the influence not only of the noble landholders who formerly owned them but also of well-meaning reformers who sought to modernize “backward” village ways, insisting that real freedom meant the right to do things their own way, without outside interference.”.
Comparing slavery in South America to serfdom in Russia, concludes how there were many similarities between them. Utilizing references, diary entries, and specific time frames, gives the reader a better understanding and an up-close look towards the subject. This book would be very useful for AP students when they are researching about slavery between 1619-1877 and need a personal point of view on political and social topics.
This book also included references from many other writers who have also written about slavery. For example, in chapter 4 page 125 it states, “What was routine and casual to white men caused anguish to black women…. described by Harriet Jacobs in her searing autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, “I cannot tell how much I suffered in the presence of these wrongs,” she wrote,”. Such a reference from Harriet Jacobs, who had escaped slavery and was later freed, places a deeper impact on the brutal life of a slave.
Honestly speaking, anyone who was to read this book would be shocked to find out that slavery in the deeper South increased dramatically, from 1790-1860. Kolchin effectively used statistics to portray the slave population and distribution, free black population etc. Towards the end of the book, Kolchin also provided a bibliographical essay that lists hundreds of other books that pertain to the topic of slavery. The theme held throughout the book was very helpful because all the events were put in chronological order.
Kolchin starts off with the spread of slavery in the American colonies and then goes to discuss how the relationship between a slave and master had changed. The Top 10 mentions aspects of slavery that one may not have known of. It mentions how some Africans lost their traditional culture and had become Americanized and brutal incidents about masters whipping their slaves and how some owners let their slaves have religious celebrations and viewed them not only as property but as humans too.
A thoughtful idea presented by the author was by including outside information from writers, former slaves, slave owners, and abolitionists. For example, in chapter 7 page 233 it states, “……hopes were raised to an exceptionally high level and the disappointment at the failure completely…..”The shadow of a deep disappointment rests upon the Negro people,” wrote W.E.B. Du Bois in his poetic essay The Souls of Black Folk…”. Writers such as W.E.B. Du Bois, have shown the reality of a slave going through racism even after being free.
The author’s aim was to inform the reader about the life of a slave, and he achieved that through his detailed writing. As The New Yorker states,” A miraculous achievement.” Receiving a comment like this from a high post, presents a big impact on the authors writing. Every chapter was an attention grabber that made the reader want to know more about the escalation of slavery. Overall the book was a success because, the subject of the book was to inform the reader about the life of a slave, which was accomplished by Peter Kolchin.
The important detail to note about a book is if it flows and follows a logical order. This book has a chronological format that provides a logical flow. Its easily read because of the smooth transitions from paragraph to paragraph and the sequence of topics being in logical order. The author organizes the events of slavery from where it began, developed, and later ended. Each chapter specifically targets every aspect of a slave’s personal life.
Kolchin did not exaggerate a topic or go straight to the point. The entire book went deep into the social life of a slave and touched on the topics very well. While reading, one would feel the same emotions as a slave would be feeling. One should read this book because Peter Kolchin does a wonderful job in portraying the life of a slave from their struggles to their freedom.
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