U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“Singing and dancing is not the same as the gun and the whip”: Agency, part II


Professor Clarence Walker

With a few weeks of delay, for which I apologize, I’m happy to continue the series of posts on the concept of ‘agency’ in history that I started several weeks ago (agency part I). The following is an interview I had with Clarence Walker, to whom I—and indeed many other historians—owe many intellectual debts, including my first introduction to a critical analysis of the concept of agency.

Clarence Walker is Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, of US and African American history at UC Davis. He is known for the controversial tone he strikes in such books as Deromanticizing Black History, We Can’t Go Home Again: An Argument Against Afrocentrism, and Mongrel Nation: The America Begotten by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.

When did you first hear the word ‘agency’ used in the context we are familiar with today in the discipline?

When I left Berkeley in 1973, I heard it used in a lecture I attended. I came to associate it with the trend I found myself increasingly criticizing.

How did your critique of the concept of agency develop?

I used to be a reviewer for Choice a library review magazine. The neat thing about it was that you could submit very short reviews. I read and reviewed many books on slavery. In my reviews I questioned the trend in the field of the cultural history of slavery. At the same time, for my own research, I read many of the slave narratives, other than that of Fredrick Douglass. As I became more familiar with the experience of slavery, I developed a skepticism towards agency. I also realized that the trend towards agency was part of a contemporary debate between the damage thesis sociologists and those influenced by the Black Power movement. While those influenced by the sociological tradition created by Robert Park and E. Franklin Frazier highlighted the damage slavery inflicted on Black people and its continuity in African American dysfunctionality, historians such as Blassingame and Herb Gutman highlighted culture, looking for resistance and of course agency.

The book that many criticized at the time was Stanley Elkins’ Slavery. How did you react to Slavery when you were in graduate school in the 60s?

As a student of Kenneth Stamp I was hostile to Elkins. I didn’t believe and still don’t believe that slavery is comparable to a concentration camp. It was a much longer institution that developed over decades and centuries.

But many of the historians that stressed slave agency saw themselves as writing against Stamp as well. Why was that?

They were hostile to Stamp because he did not deal with culture. The cultural turn took the debate away from work, which is what slavery is fundamentally about.

So what happened there with the “cultural turn” historians? What did you disagree with them about?

Agency got carried away with Blassingame and Genovese after him. Singing and dancing is not the same as the gun and the whip. You can’t escape the power imbalance intrinsic to slavery.

Do you still think Stamp’s study, The Peculiar Institution, is more accurate than Genovese or Balssingame’s accounts?

Yes, absolutely. Stamp talked about resistance as well. He recognized that no one was fully socialized by their masters. But he viewed slavery as a system of labor, you can’t lose sight of that.

One of your most famous essays was a comprehensive critique of Genovese’s Roll Jordan Roll. When did you write it and what did you find inaccurate in his account? After all, he also saw himself as writing against Blassingame and Gutman.

As I mentioned in my essay, the biggest problem for me with Roll Jordan Roll was Genovese’s analysis of religion. As a Marxist he tried too hard to account for the slaves’ religion in functionalist terms and did not address it seriously enough for what it was. Yes Genovese wrote against Blassingame, but he also tried to incorporate his findings within an analysis of hegemony. He tried to curb agency under the idea of hegemony. He tried to do too many things. Roll Jordan Roll is a good borscht, it has a bit of everything.

So how do you think we should think of agency in history?

It is certainly an important category, but the historical subject either has it or does not have it, the problem is with the idea of “affording agency.” As a response to the notion of victimization, historians portrayed the slaves as having agency. But if they have so much agency then what is the problem with slavery? After all slavery must have had some impact on the slaves. Also, we always talk about agency as a good thing, which it is not. Agency is bad too.

Are there studies of slavery that deal with agency in a way that you think is accurate?

Peter Wood’s book Black Majority about South Carolina and Flight and Rebellion about slave resistance by Gerald Mullin came out during the 70s too and dealt with agency in a much more historically accurate way.

What about Them Dark Days by William Dussinbere? Its portrayal of slavery in the rice plantations, which is what Peter Wood wrote about, had little to do with the agency paradigm, correct?

Yes that is a good corrective to Wood’s book actually. It taught you that slavery is primarily about work.

What about accounts of agency in Native American history, such as The Middle Ground by Richard White?

I like to call that book “The Slippery Slope,” because agency was a way for Indians not to be losers. It’s an episode in a longer durée. The long trajectory should always be incorporated into the study.

Do you think the idea of agency is more helpful for white people or for black people—or, in the case of The Middle Ground, Native peoples?

I suspect that it is more therapeutic for white people than for Natives or blacks. Americans find it hard to believe that their history was bad. It is often times a way to provide dignity to oppressed groups without portraying American history too negatively.

Your books, Deromanticizing Black History and We Can’t Go Home Again: An Argument Against Afrocentrism, both seem to be in opposition to many of the ideas that came out of the Black Nationalist movement. What do you disagree with in Black Nationalism?

I never agreed with the notion that slaves were in a state of constant rebellion, which is an idea some historians of slave resistance took from Black Nationalists. I also don’t agree with them that blacks in America are a colonized people. Also, I never understood Afrophilia. Black history is unique, not similar to the history of Africans. Why aren’t Black Nationalists critical of the Africans who sold them?

I am sure you know that many white folks use that excuse—that Africans are just as complicit in slavery as Europeans—to subvert criticism of Europeans and of slavery more broadly. Why did you still feel it is important to write critically?

Because it was romantic horseshit. I’m a believer in critical history. I have always admired, for instance, the Jewish tradition of writing critically. Hannah Arendt is one of my favorite people. I felt that black history became an exercise in romanticism. I’m a big fan of Norman Mailer and Philip Roth, who as Jews wrote critically of their own culture.

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