Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Unburdened by Conscience (BOOK REVIEW)

Unburdened by Conscience: A Black People’s Collective Account of America’s Antebellum South and the Aftermath
by Anthony W. Neal
University Press of America
Paperback, $26.95
172 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7618-5492-0

Book Review by Kam Williams

“While pursuing my Bachelor of Arts degree in college, I took a lot of history courses [which] offered an essentially unapologetic, Southern view of American slavery [as] a benign institution. They focused primarily on the slaveholders, whom they euphemistically called ‘Southern planters.’
Each historian chose different words to convey [the same] message about the slave owners: The majority of Southern planters were good people who were morally concerned about the welfare of their slaves… As I read those textbooks, it dawned on me that I was not the intended audience.
After completing my assigned reading, I harbored a deep resentment because I believed I had been required to read propaganda for academic credit… In trying to humanize the slaveholders, most of those historians were leaving out an indispensable part of the record… black people’s perspective.
Determined to present slavery from their point of view… I offer this book as the product of that effort.”

-Excerpted from the Preface (pgs. ix-x)

American history books typically suggest that most Africans were docile and that slave revolts like the one led by Nat Turner were rare occurrences on plantations. But truth be told, escapes, resistance and insurrections were the rule rather than the exception, given the whippings, rapes and other forms of torture routinely employed by owners and overseers to keep their chattel in line.
Unburdened by Conscience sets the record straight by relying on narratives and journals kept by ex-slaves rather than on academic texts which never bothered to consider the African-American experience. Compiled by Boston-based attorney Anthony W. Neal, the book represents a refreshing alternative to the conventional wisdom in much the same way that the late Howard Zinn painted an empathetic picture from the point-of-view of blacks, women, Native-Americans and other oppressed groups in A People’s History of the United States.
Here, for example, Neal cites freedman Richard Macks’ witnessing a Maryland slave auction where a mulatto female castrated her new master when he attempted to molest her. A similar case is recounted by ex-slave Charity Morris whose pregnant cousin Sallie cracked her master over the head with a fireplace poker in return for having repeatedly raped her. Sadly, Salllie was soon convicted of murder, although not executed until the baby was born.
A sobering opus belatedly shedding light on a shameful chapter of our cultural legacy.

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