The Negro Work Ethic

Fanny Kemble homes in on a point that many visitors to the antebellum South also made, that in designating hard work "slave labor" and thus a marker of slavery, the slave society degrades labor, itself, and thus retards the growth of the country. Racist anti-slavery folks, who had no sympathy for blacks, often made this case. 


Here's Kemble's version:

After dinner I had a most interesting conversation with Mr. K----. Among other subjects, he gave me a lively and curious description of the Yeomanry of Georgia--more properly termed pine-landers. Have you visions now of well-to-do farmers with comfortable homesteads, decent habits, industrious, intelligent, cheerful, and thrifty? Such, however, is not the Yeomanry of Georgia. Labour being here the especial portion of slaves, it is thenceforth degraded, and considered unworthy of all but slaves. 

No white man, therefore, of any class puts hand to work of any kind soever. This is an exceedingly dignified way of proving their gentility, for the lazy planters who prefer an idle life of semi-starvation and barbarism to the degradation of doing anything themselves; but the effect on the poorer whites of the country is terrible. 

I speak now of the scattered white population, who, too poor to possess land or slaves, and having no means of living in the towns, squat (most appropriately is it so termed) either on other men's land or government districts--always here swamp or pine barren--and claim masterdom over the place they invade, till ejected by the rightful proprietors. These wretched creatures will not, for they are whites (and labour belongs to blacks and slaves alone here), labour for their own subsistence. 

They are hardly protected from the weather by the rude shelters they frame for themselves in the midst of these dreary woods. Their food is chiefly supplied by shooting the wild fowl and venison, and stealing from the cultivated patches of the plantations nearest at hand. Their clothes hang about them in filthy tatters, and the combined squalor and fierceness of their appearance is really frightful. This population is the direct growth of slavery. The planters are loud in their execrations of these miserable vagabonds; yet they do not see that, so long as labour is considered the disgraceful portion of slaves, these free men will hold it nobler to starve or steal than till the earth with none but the despised blacks for fellow-labourers. 

The blacks themselves--such is the infinite power of custom--acquiesce in this notion, and, as I have told you, consider it the lowest degradation in a white to use any exertion. I wonder, considering the burthens they have seen me lift, the digging, the planting, the rowing, and the walking I do, that they do not utterly contemn me, and indeed they seem lost in amazement at it. 

I've never bought this argument. For starters, I'm sure the life of a non-slaveholder--even if he aspired to planter status--was fairly hard. There must have been a work or starve factor in play. Moreover, the "lazy white Southerner" argument always seemed too pat for me, as it fit in really well with a stereotype of Southerners. Perhaps this is where the stereotype has its origins. I don't know.

But despite my skepticism, I'm sure that there was some sense that certain labor belonged to certain people--much as how teaching or nursing is often feminized. More than that I pull this out to demonstrate again that the people of the 18th century understood slavery as systemic. It was an institution with assumed cultural beliefs, and political as well as economic implications.

If you're wondering why it couldn't be ended through compensation, it seems to me the thing to do isn't to imagine that you would have, somehow, been a more intelligent and visionary slaveholder. The thing to do is to ask, why? The thing to do is to assume that they were as smart as you are and yet under the influence of strong systemic incentives--as surely as we are all under equally strong systemic incentives today.

To understand this you have to grapple with the words of the people, living in that time.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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