Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award Based on hitherto unexamined sources: interviews with ex-slaves, diaries and accounts by former slaveholders, this "rich and admirably written book" (Eugene Genovese, The New York Times Book Review) aims to show how, during the Civil War and after Emancipation, blacks and whites interacted in ways that dramatized not only their mutual dependency, but the ambiguities and tensions that had always been latent in "the peculiar institution."
Leon Frank Litwack was an American historian whose scholarship focuses on slavery, the Reconstruction Era of the United States, and its aftermath into the 20th century. He received his BA in 1951 and Ph.D. in 1958 from the University of California, Berkeley, and taught the University of Wisconsin, University of South Carolina, Louisiana State University and Colorado College before assuming a position at UC-Berkeley, where he taught until his retirement in 2007.
Litwack tells history by letting its participants speak. If you care about the aftermath of the Civil War in the South, and want first-hand accounts of the experience of freed slaves and those who helped and resisted them, this is your book. Riveting and honest. A gigantic accomplishment. My deepest admiration goes to this writer.
Been in the Storm So Long is a history of the aftermath of slavery in the U.S. The book garnered all three of the major history awards in 1980/1981.
This book delves, deeply, into the nuances of slave life and the initial freedoms that came about following the Civil War. It is not a depressing read per se but shines a spotlight, from the ex-slave perspective, on the immediate years after the Civil War.
If you want to know why so many ex-slaves remained loyal to their masters after the war, or why so many ex-slaves moved to the city after the war, or even why so few ex-slaves meted out retribution towards the whites then this book is very compelling in explaining these reasons. The level of research that went into this work, more than a century after the end of slavery, is pretty remarkable.
In the first months after the war, there was widespread celebration of freedom with the end of the horror that was slavery. But the southern economy did not bounce back. And there are many examples to show in the successive years there were a wide array of responses and decisions of freed slaves that were primarily focused on dire economic circumstances and basic necessities such as food and shelter. Some of these decisions, such as tenant farming, in retrospect seem like bad ideas but perhaps not at the time. There were no reparations paid to slaves and most Northern state government leaders were racist and unwilling to integrate. And of course along with many whites in the South, ex-slaves had little to no money or worldly possessions and thus few great job options.
4 stars. The book is a bit dated and uneven in its prose due to the plethora of anecdotes. I think the thesis was convincing and there is enough historical nuance that I learned a good deal.
This book lets us hear the voices of those directly affected by slavery and what their experiences were like in the immediate aftermath of Emancipation and the Civil War. Plantation owners and their wives, enslaved people and contraband (formerly enslaved who escaped to the Union troops for protection and to help the federal cause), agents of the Freedmen's Bureau, soldiers from both armies and black troops too, are cited to paint a comprehensive canvas of what was happening on the ground as America's schism and reconstruction unfolded. Litwack organizes this panoply of perspectives by topic such as the running of plantations in the absence of the owners and sons away in military service, calculations of whether to escape or abide, education, wages and contract labor, religion, and voting rights. Nothing is superficial and the tapestry is truly amazing. Some of it was gut wrenching to read and I made my way through the book slowly. What the 4 millions slaves experienced was brutal, but also, the deep hypocrisy, smug arrogance and plain ugliness of the white population, both north and south, was hard to stomach.
Litwack's excavation and use of primary sources for black voices is really what makes this book stand out for me. Even in deep and uneducated dialect, depth of feeling and wisdom about what is happening shines through in the black voices. The book ends abruptly with the vote of 1867, when blacks could first cast a ballot, with no omniscient authoritative wrap-up or summary as I expected. But the job he did was thorough and illuminates an important segment of US history with voices too often slighted or ignored .
Leon F. Litwack’s Been in the Storm So Long is the classic account of African-Americans’ transition between slavery and freedom, during and after the Civil War. Making heavy use of oral histories, personal memoirs and other firsthand accounts, Litwack provides a ground-level view of emancipation. The book captures the twist relationship between slaves and masters, a mixture of paternalist affection and racist brutality, that war didn’t easily fray; but also makes clear that Black men and women were never content with slavery, and that abuse, violence and fear were central to the “peculiar institution.” Thus not all slaves immediately embraced emancipation, though as the Civil War ground on and Union troops penetrated deeper into the South, it became increasingly difficult to maintain old fictions of genteel master and content slave. Minor acts of disobedience grew into wholesale escapes and occasional murder (though rarely, during the war, outright rebellion); many escaped slaves joined the Union Army and affected emancipation themselves, despite racism from their comrades and threat of massacre by the enemy. At war’s end slavery was finished, but the four million freedmen were cast into a world that offered few opportunities for them. Many moved into cities hoping for greater independence and easy work; others bought or obtained land, often from their former masters, and tried building a new life on the ashes of the old. Children and adults alike sought educational opportunities; a few, like Hiram Revels and Robert Smalls, even managed to win political office and make the case for racial equality, at state and national levels. All strides towards Black independence incited white backlash, in the form of riots, lynchings and pogroms, while the Federal government was ill-equipped (and often poorly motivated) to assist them. Many ex-slaves were forced back onto plantations, some even working for old masters, into peonage marginally better than slavery; this, in turn, confirmed Southern racism, which codified itself in discriminatory laws that lasted for a century. Litwack’s book is at once uplifting and heartbreaking; the story of a people struggling to forge their own identity after centuries of bondage, persisting despite facing resistance at every turn. A must-read for all students of Civil War and Black history.
There are many books on American slavery; this book is about how it ended. It ended with the American Civil War. Thousands of Southern slaves ran away to Union lines; one group stole a gunboat steamer and piloted it to freedom. Over 186,000 black men, 10% of the total, served in the Union Army, which remained segregated for another century, into the Korean War. The Confederacy did not recognize blacks as legitimate prisoners of war, and either (re-)enslaved or massacred them; black soldiers were aware of it, and fought all the harder. Although the former slaves hoped that their freedom would come with land, they were disappointed: as the Federal government gave away millions of acres to the railroads, it left the vast majority of plantations with their antebellum owners, who told the freedmen that their lives should continue as before, whippings and all, and if they didn't like it, they were free to leave. Many left, and took jobs that the whites found too hard or too degrading, but most remained landless agricultural laborers working 10-hour days 6 days a week. Some people thought that now that blacks were free and could keep their earnings, they would work hard and make all the money they could; the opposite proved to be the case. Slavery was no more, but the racial hierarchy continued, codified in the new laws passed in most of the former Confederacy to keep freedmen on the plantation. It was supported even by the poor whites, who did not find common cause with the blacks against the rich: as an American journalist put it a century hence, "fascism [...] gives every piss-ant an ant hill to piss from." In their turn, some American blacks felt superior to their Brazilian and Cuban brethren, who were mostly African-born, and had not cast off the "barbaric usages" of that continent. Students at a school for freedmen thought that the only difference between themselves and the whites was money, and the reason the whites had money is that they "stole it off we all". White missionaries came to the South to preach to the freedmen and were impressed with their "simple and childlike" faith; so did schoolteachers, who thought that by teaching the freedmen to read and write, they were rescuing them from "vice and crime". Even before the 15th Amendment to the U.S. constitution was passed, blacks started to demand the right to vote; a black newspaper wrote that even the Jews, who did not mix socially as much with the white Christian majority as did the blacks, had this right, so why not the blacks? While the Southern states were under a military occupation, a larger percentage of blacks held public office, elected mostly by the former slaves, than at any other time in American history. All this would change in the age of Jim Crow, the subject of the author's next book.
One thing that I found interesting is the language of the slaves. For some reason I was under the impression that the distinctive features of African American Vernacular English came about in Northern ghettoes in the 20th century; yet the grammar of some samples of slave speech quoted in this book is far from that of normative English: "I takes", "I's bound", "places what you know", "Dey was all lookin' sick", and so on. Where did that come from?
In studying the history of the Civil War, it is so easy to divide it neatly into its major events: the war itself, the Emancipation Proclamation, the assassination of Lincoln, reconstruction, the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, and finally, reconciliation. What's missing here and in most general histories are the slaves themselves - that generation of people most affected by all of this who suddenly found themselves "free". There were almost four million men and women in bondage by the time of the Civil War and at its end, they were suddenly free to do whatever they wished and go wherever they pleased. Or were they?
Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery tells their story in those crucial years from April 1865 until the imposition of Radical Reconstruction which began in 1867. Most of the story is told by the slaves themselves as Mr. Litwack draws a great deal of his information from the slave interviews conducted in the 1930's by the Federal Writers Project undertaken at that time. He left them in the patois spoken by the slaves and declined to have then "cleaned up" into grammatically correct English and this decision makes their statements and recollections of their days in slavery and the immediate aftermath all the more powerful.
These early years were chaotic and trouble yet full of hope on the side of the former slaves and filled with fear of what might happen on both sides as they tried to work out a new way of life and a new economy for the South. There was much anger and some violence. The joy experienced by the former slaves in their new status was so palpable that it still leaps off the pages even now. Reading this, it seemed that for one moment in time there could have been a chance for the South to take a different path. I wish it had done so.
I had to read this book for a US History course at Cal Berkeley. The only thing more magical than reading this book is having Dr. Litwack read the primary documents contained in it. I have never been more mesmerized in a large lecture with only a podium and a man speaking.
His mastery of mixing text with primary sources is amazing and even more amazing when you realize this title was published before the days of the internet.
Great book- an awesome textbook for history courses and a must read for anyone that wants to get an accurate portrayal of slave life and the reconstruction.
I have been very frustrated with this book. The author clearly went through tons of original sources and so there is valuable information inside. At the same time, I wish he had just published a book of the original sources rather than adding his own commentary, which was rarely helpful. He lessened the impact of "Please send me some hair of the children" with his editing! (Though he did include all of Jourdan's letter.)
It appears the effort to be thorough - and probably an effort to be unbiased - there ends up being no conclusion to anything, with all different viewpoints being covered and little indication of which feelings were more common or which ones most closely resembled reality. Like really? Different people experienced the same events differently? The only thing more shocking than that is that slaves may not have always shared their candid opinions about freedom with their owners!
I suspect that part of the problem is that Litwack himself was not free from some paternalism, but the most frustrating thing is that not nearly enough of the book is about the aftermath of slavery. He spends so much time on setting the stage of slavery that there is only a little about the aftermath, ending just when things could have gotten really interesting on how masters-turned-employers were threatening Black men about voting, and how many voted anyway.
Despite apparent attempts to be even-handed, I felt like too much weight was given to the sufferings of the white people, though maybe it wasn't because they came off as really despicable. Here are some fun quotes:
“Nearly a week after the fall of Richmond, the Confederate dream lay shattered. When the news reached Mary Darby, daughter of a prominent South Carolina family, she staggered to the table, sat down, and wept aloud. “Now.” she shrieked, “we belong to the Negroes and Yankees.” If the freed slaves had reason to be confused about the future, their former masters and mistresses were in many instances absolutely distraught, incapable of perceiving a future without slaves. “Nobody that hasn't experienced it knows anything about our suffering,” a young South Carolina planter declared. “We are discouraged and have nothing left to begin new with. I never did a day's work in my life, and don't know how to begin.” Often with little sense of intended irony, whites viewed the downfall of the Confederacy and slavery as fastening upon them the ignominy of bondage. Either they must submit to the insolence of their servants or appeal to their northern “masters” for protection, one woman wrote, “as if we were slaves ourselves – and that is just what they are trying to make of us. Oh it is abominable!”
“... Returning to the history that was being acted out in her own household, she bemoaned the abolition of slavery as a “most unprecedented robbery,” intended only for the greater humiliation of the Southern people. “However, it is done,” she sighed, “and we, the chained witnesses, can only look on.”
“... the New York Times correspondent tried very hard to maintain his detachment – and he succeeded. “Whipping, paddling, and other customs, peculiar to the palmy days of the institution, are practiced, and the negro finds, to his heart's sorrow, that his sore-headed master is loath to give him up. There is fault on both sides and equal exaggeration in the representation of his difficulties, by both master and servant.” (NYT, August 2nd, 1865)
“To discover on day, as did so many white women, that “I have not one human being in the wide world to whom I can say 'do this for me'” had to be a most disheartening realization. “We have truly said good by to being ladies of leisure,” Grace Elmore lamented, as she sought to adjust to her new daily routine. “My time seems fully occupied and often I do not have time to sleep even. My hour for rising is 5 o' clock.” Embittered by the continuing defection of their servants, exasperated by the behavior of those who remained, and unable to find satisfactory replacements, many families found themselves forced into the unfamiliar role of doing the housework themselves. No matter how they rationalized this change in their lives, and whatever the orgy of self-congratulation that often accompanied the assumption of household responsibilities, the unprecedented nature of their predicament provoked considerable dismay and disbelief.
Consistent with this theme of accommodation, the “better class” of whites suggested that with “the right kind of teachers”, the newly freed slaves could be taught a proper deference for their superiors, fidelity to contracts, respect for property, the rewards of industriousness, and other virtues calculated to ensure an orderly transition to free labor. That prospect could induce a Florida planter to believe “the best way to manage the Negroes now is to educate them and increase as far as practicable their wants and dependence upon the white man.”
Jonathan C. Gibbs, destined to be a leading black force in Reconstruction politics is Florida, laid down a simple set of rules in the aftermath of the war: “If we can secure, for the next ten years, three clean shirts a week, a tooth brush, and spelling-book to every Freedman in South Carolina, I will go bail (a thing I seldom do) for the next hundred years, that we will have no more slavery, and both whites and blacks will be happier and better friends.” Nearly every black convention, cleric, editor, and self-professed leader repeated in one form or another these time-honored middle-class verities, discountenanced vagrancy and pauperism, and extolled the virtues of the Puritan work ethic. If blacks would only heed such advice, the doors that were now closed to them would swing open and they would achieve the respect and recognition of white Americans. That assumption would prove to be as naïve and mistaken as it was persistent.
“You cannot be sure of any thing when Negro rule commences,” a South Carolina planter wrote two months after passage of the Reconstruction Acts, “and I am making friends of the Mammon of unrighteousness as fast as possible. I still believe we can hold our own but the negroes will have to enjoy more of the fruits than before.”
Mediocre research and poor application of primary source materials. While giving credit for the relatively early date of this publication (1979) this book falls down on many levels, beginning with an over-emphasis on presenting this period through the perspectives and language of White owners and former owners, with no application of critical race theory. The author ignored a trove of slave narratives to repeatedly engage with official period media reports, political statements, letters etc. Beyond being poorly researched, the material is often presented in an awkward anecdotal format, relies on the use of dialectic approximation for Black voices, while correcting even period appropriate spellings for White ones, and is problematic in many of its underlying assumptions about race and gender.
a gift from Paul Harvey - horrible accounts collected from slaves or ex-slaves - the mother who was forced to nurse the master's baby and ignore her own only to see him grew up and hurt hers... it's a massive history book i haven't even near finishing - how many hours the author must've spent gathering and examining sources from diaries of ex-slaves.
I found this book to be very informative and well-organized thematically. African Americans acted in a variety of ways during and immediately after the Civil War, depending on their individual circumstances, and Litwack illustrates this amply by quoting from former slaves' letters and interviews. There was no single African American experience, and people made decisions about their future based on a range of factors. Many of the personal stories Litwack cites are heartbreaking - I was particularly moved by the section on former slaves who tried to find their spouses and children who had been sold to different masters. I was also moved by the eagerness with which the freedmen and freedwomen grasped the chance to receive an education and to engage in political processes. Here were people ready to exercise their newly-won freedom and keen to participate fully in the American body politic, to take their place as equals at the table of citizenship. As we know, after the end of Reconstruction, it would be another century before white supremacy was finally laid to rest in the old Confederacy.
Reading the dismayed accounts of the former slaveholders, I found myself wondering aloud why they thought that the buying and selling of human beings could ever be condoned or defended. Their blindness to the damage caused by slavery was evident, and many of them wallowed in self-pity once their former slaves left them or insisted on being treated as human beings worthy of respect.
Litwack's focus is squarely on what life was like for slaves during the Civil War and how they adapted to their changed circumstances after the War. He has illuminated the human dimension that is often missing from Civil War histories that focus on military campaigns and Washington politics. In so doing, he has created a vivid picture of African American courage and resilience.
Is America misled or misguided? The final pages of “Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery” led me to this crossroads after author Leon Litwack closed his outstanding survey of the experiences and expectations of black and white Americans with regard to race relations in the lead up to, during, and immediately after the Civil War with the birth of the 14th Amendment.
If America is misled, it means the founding fathers promised a union they either could not build or had no intention of building. It also means that even had Lincoln lived his plans to bring southerners back into the Union would have given blacks no real say in government or economic opportunity.
If America is misguided then we must assume that the kind of capitalist state based on equal rights and equality of opportunity Americans envision is based on the supremacy of whites and was as much in the 19th century as it is now a pipe dream.
Slavery was baked into the union from the very beginning not only in the design of the Electoral College which gave slave states enough power to elect many US presidents, but also in the promise to return fugitive slaves as if they were Fedex packages gone amiss in the delivery system.
(Today Americans shackled under the Electoral College system see sparsely populated rural states stymie the population centres on the coasts in the election of their president, pace Donald Trump.)
Southern planters had good reason to believe they were betrayed when resistance grew to returning runaways (read “The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War” by Andrew Delbanco), when radical Republicans supported abolitionist sentiments in Congress, and when the north fought mightily to prevent new territories from becoming slave states.
From their perspective it looked as though they were tricked into supporting New England break away from Great Britain. Northerners didn’t believe blacks were any more equal to whites than they did, and as history has shown us (in Isabel Wilkerson’s majestic “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”) northerners weren’t all that accommodating when the descendants of slaves and sharecroppers finally moved north in huge numbers to seek a safer life for their families and better economic opportunity.
Slavery lasted more than 260 years in America. It was so profitable (“The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” by Edward E. Baptist) that slaves were used as collateral for speculative loans in property west of the Mississippi and Texas. It was so unusual that English linen manufacturers couldn’t replicate it anywhere else in the world (Sven Beckert’s “Empire of Cotton: A Global History.”)
Four million blacks lived in the South at the time of the Civil War. More than 186,000 blacks fought in the war, mostly on the side of the North. Almost all of these people were illiterate.
With emancipation came the opportunity for black families to reunite, for women to devote time to building their families, for adults to move about the countryside without asking permission, and for black families to openly educate their children. It also gave blacks a chance to reflect on their very names and decide who they wanted to be.
But emancipation did not bring 40 acres and a mule, the rallying cry for blacks who believed the Union Army would give them the resources to start their own farms from plantations taken from the rebels. Many blacks became embroiled in contracts working for their former masters, or others like them, often incurring debt and most usually not improving their independence a bit.
Freedom. Independence. Two concepts not necessarily alligned at the close of the war.
In addition to enduring complete powerlessness for the better part of two and a half centuries, they were repeatedly insulted, beaten, and whipped. Their young and adult women were repeatedly raped. Many thousands of them had their families torn apart by the sale of their family members to other plantations. Children taken from mothers. Husbands taken from wives.
It was in this backdrop that Southerners told themselves that blacks were childlike, incapable of governing either themselves or others, or deserved to take control of their own lives. Southerners sought compensation for lands torn from them in war, but never considered for a moment compensation owing to the slaves themselves.
Southern men considered the blacks lazy, even though it was the blacks from the sweat of their own brows who built the wealth of the South, and southern women despaired when their house slaves abandoned them after emancipation and left them to cook, clean, mend clothes, and entertain on their own. (And cooking and cleaning and particularly ironing in those days ain’t what it is today.)
America is still living with the aftermath of slavery. Politicians cheat to keep blacks from voting. Rich parents cheat to get their largely white children into elite schools. And Silicon Valley apes the Old Boys Clubs of yore.
I was struck by a quote from the black poet W.E.B. Dubois who looked back at the newly “freed” men and women. Their first images of themselves were taken from their white masters. How heroic was their quest to build their self-respect and their dignity from a whole new cloth.
You could also say that the planters — and Northerners who benefitted sometimes directly, and sometimes indirectly from slavery in America— took their identities from their position of power over the blacks. The same could be said of white Americans over the aboriginal peoples. Had Americans not traded in blacks or murdered Indians, would they see their manifest destiny in quite the same light?
Whites were so dependent not just economically but emotionally on free black labour that the destruction of slavery fractured their self-esteem.
In fairness to America, it did not invent slavery or bigotry or white nationalism. These are among the carbuncles of our civilization. It remains an open question whether we will ever rid ourselves of their influence. Emancipation in America was only a beginning.
A. Synopsis: This book examines the “experience of the newly freed slaves. (xv)” The various dimensions of Reconstruction (politics, economics, military occupation) should not be permitted to silence the principle actors in this drama--4 million black slaves. The newly freed black slaves all emerged from different conditions of bondage, yet much of the slave experience was identical--the uses of humility, the virtues of ignorance, art of evasion, the techniques by which feelings were masked. B. “The faithful slave” 1. The whites were frequently preoccupied by the stocism of the black slave. Fighting would be only miles from the plantations and yet they betrayed no signs that they knew or even cared that their future hung in the balance. The slave was also observent of the “white folk.” Slavery was based on power of the white over the black. But, the Civil War reduced the power of the white in the blacks eyes.The master for the first time seemed vulnerable. How long would the slave remain “faithful?” As the Civil War came to a close many white owners feared insurection. This fear was not entirely illusiory. C. Black liberators 1. The United States Colored Troups were Northern blacks who fought for the end of slavery. For them, it was a war of liberation. Frederick Douglass became a recruiting agent in 1863 for the US army. Blacks served in separate regiments, and a question that was never fully resolved was their equality with other white soldiers. By the end of the war, 186,000 blacks served in the army (10% of the total enrolement). The fact that the black man helped liberate their brethen, remained a considerable source of pride during Reconstruction. A black soldier who recognized his former master was one of the prisoners that he was guarding said, “Hello, massa; bottom rail top dis time!” Thus, the black soldier represented a sudden, dramatic, and far-reaching reversal of traditional roles. D. Kingdom Comin’ 1. The anticipation of freedom did not prompt slaves to revel in the apparent military collapse of the Confederacy. The plantation owner waited anxiously towards the end of the war. Uncertainty, skepticism, and fear marked the initial reaction of many slaves to the Yankee invaders. Som elacks returned to the plantations after they had been free for awhile. E. Slaves no more 1. That precise moment when the slave could think of hiself or herself as free was not always clear. Usually the master would call all of the slaves together and announce that they were free. But, Union soldiers rarely stayed long enough to enfore the new status. The uncertainties plagued both blacks and whites. Under slavery the boundaries had been clearly established, and both parties understood them. F. How free is free? 1. In the aftermath of emancipation, the newly freed slaves would seek to test how free they were. Whites clung to the traditional notions of black inferiority. Emancipation encouraged a degree of independence and assertiveness which bondage had constrained. For example, slaves took new names. Thousands of blacks “couples” marrid legally for the first time. Black women withdrew from the labor force. Within the black household the father exerted his dominance. Segregation became firmly entrenched in the South. A color line was drawn in all public places. But, most importantly, freedom allowed the ex-slaves to take their labor elsewhere. This was the essence of the new free status and was used a a weapon to carve out greater independence. G. The feel of freedom: moving about 1. While every experience of freedom had its different qualities, every ex-slave contemplated wether they should stay around the plantation or travel to another location. Moving meant locating family memners, improving an economic situation, returning to old homes, or moving to a place where they could more easily establish their new rights. The freed slaves generally migrated within their respective states, and they sought out counties, heavilly populated by other blacks. Federal authorities and native whites often attempted to curb the movement of the ex-slave and return them to the plantations. H. Back to work 1. The old compulsions: The planter class made every effort to retain the essential features of the old work discipline. The ex-slaves fought for new rights as free laborers--shorter hours, paid wages. The Black Codes were an attempt to regulate the freedmen by the whites and to keep the blacks raising crops. This legislation restricted the slaves mobility, and reduced his barganing power. The Black Codes proved to be short lived because they were deemed to be too discriminatory and repressive. Federal officials ordered them suspended. I. The gospel and the primer 1. There was a tremendous ammount of work that lay ahead of reformers who sought to educate the freedmen. The missionaries and teachers expressed a great deal of satisfaction with the success they had. Methodists, Baptists, attempted to make the slave spiritually free. Nothing could have been more influential in teaching the slaves the value of education then the extraordinary measures adopted by the “white folks” to keep them from it. Power was associated with literacy. To remin ignorant was to remain in bondage. J. Becoming a people 1. The Freedmen’s conventions marked the political debut of southern blacks. The attempts to gain the vote. It was very difficult to obtain a racial identity. As Dubois said, “One ever feels his two-ness--an Americn and a Negro.”
Leon Litwack’s 1979 work Been in the Storm So Long focuses on the transition from slavery to freedom. Systematic analysis is not the aim of Litwack’s work, which at times simply falls, despite the thematic nature of his chapters, into a collection of anecdotes. Rather Been in the Storm So Long makes a thesis of diversity and is often content with bearing witness to the human dimensions of overwhelming social change in which the “various dimensions of slavery’s collapse – the political machinations, the government edicts, the military occupation – should not be permitted to obscure the principal actors in this drama: the four million black men and women for whom enslavement composed their entire memory.”
Despite defying the tidy summations with which other scholars make in more analytical works, Litwack contributes powerfully with his exploration of history as it is lived individual by individual, reminding us that that experience imparts its own causal force. If Hahn searches for the political vigor of the freedmen in the substrata of slave culture, Litwack locates a separate motive force in the revolutionary nature of the times, in which all the former rules of society seemed suspended, inverted, or permanently banished. “The war and freedom injected into their lives the excitement of anticipation, encouraged a new confidence in their own capabilities . . . If their optimism seems misplaced, the sights which greeted newly freed slaves suggested otherwise – black armies of occupation, families reunited, teachers offering to instruct them, Federal officials placing thousands of them on abandoned and confiscated lands, former masters prepared to bargain for their labor, and black missionaries organizing them in churches based upon a free and independent expression of their Christianity.” It is worth remembering that disjuncture, as well as continuity, imparts its own kind of momentum. As one Black soldier from North Carolina put it “where once the slave was forbid being out after nine P.M., or to puff a ‘regalia,’ or to walk with a cane, or to ride in a carriage! Negro soldiers! – with banners floating.” What might not be hoped for in such a world?
I read this book intermittently for a year. But, I am so glad I continued to plow through it. Sometimes I found the book repetitive but only due to its thorough researched accounts.
It is must reading for history buffs. The author presents detailed accounts of such accounts as the Black Codes, share cropping, tenant farming which strived to keep a steady supply of cheap and often still free labor after emancipation.
The roles of the Freedman's Bureau as a friend and foe to the newly emancipated, the Union Army, especially the Black regiments the and clerics (which lead to Sunday morning being the most segregated space in America) are all revealed.
There are stories of pride, self hatred, betrayal and resilience.
Sometimes it seemed contradictory but only because of differring true accounts and various perspectives of those that lived during this most fascinating, yet painful time in American history.
I found lessons from then that are applicable in today's political climate.
Sadly, the strategy of identity politics used then, is used effectively now by 45. Sometimes the sentiments with roots from more than a century ago, ring true today.
A slice of underserved history, Litwack traces the viewpoints of slaves and former slaves in the South beginning just before the Civil War and ending with the first sniff of civili liberties in post-war reconstruction. Maintaining a sense of authenticity, Litwack cites unfiltered primary sources in the peculiar patois of the southern freedman. Beginning from a chronological perspective, peppering the remembrances of former slaves with the diaries and letters of their enslavers and their liberators, the latter half of the book switches to a topical format to address the challenges of freed slaves in the immediate aftermath of the war and the passage of the thirteenth amendment. As the book proceeds, the chapters within become self-contained vignettes, to the point where the final chapter appears to end, with little in the way of summation. In the end, "Been in the Storm So Long" is a chronicle of a people in transition. It has no higher aspiration than to give voice to the previously voiceless and it achieves this goal brilliantly.
This is fantastic, a hard book to summarise. Litwack's great achievement here is to let the protagonists (black and white) of his story speak for themselves, and reveal the complexities of slavery and what emerged from it. And in that way, he brings out for instance, the differences between the enslaved, between black people, free and enslaved, those who worked in the house and those who worked in the field, soldiers and those who did not escape slavery before the end of the war, wandering and staying in their former occupation, as well as what unites them. There is a record of the white violence and oppression that those who are familiar with slavery and the Reconstruction know so well, but it is not just that. There is a great deal here about the aspirations and the achievements of black people, the desires for, and in some cases, to some extent, the attaining of, freedom, for land, education, and the ballot.
Arnold Toynbee called history “one damned thing after another,” and Litwack seems to take that to heart. This book is exhausting, overwhelming, and comprehensive - a series of well-written vignettes without any real structure. I don’t know of another book that covers this period as thoroughly, but it is in need of an update. It is a useful reference, but, despite its length, has little to say.
The process of freeing people didn't just happen. It was a process that had starts and stops. You could argue that it is still in process. The author chose to end the book on the first time formerly enslaved men got the chance to vote, which was a very emotional end to a very good and emotional book.
This is an exceptionally well done, if almost overly thorough, historical depiction of the responses by Black and white Americans in the South to the end of slavery. Such a momentous change, the end of a social order, could only affect its human subjects in one way: that is, in every way imaginable.
Litwack demonstrates, in sometimes troubling ways, that both Blacks and whites reacted in countless ways that sometimes went entirely against logic. Litwack documents that there were a small number of Blacks who wished to remain slaves, as there were a few southern white slave-owners who secretly thought that slavery was wrong and felt its abolition as a weight off their shoulders. But the vast majority reacted as their self-interest would imply. For the enslaved it was the dawn of a new world, a new life. For the slave-owners it was the end of the only world they had ever known Such extremes of elation and despair in turn manifested themselves in countless ways.
Litwack tries hard to, and convinces the reader that he succeeds, reconstruct the outlooks of all affected groups. On some level, one must admire the author for this. This is, after all, a work of history, and history is lived from many perspectives. There were times, however, when I was troubled by the degree to which the reader is asked to understand the perspective of white supremacist slave owners. The world the slave-owners had known was one characterized by completely parasitic relationships to their slaves and, indeed, society as a whole. The southern aristocracy prided itself on being incompetent. It's value to society was to demonstrate "proper Christian" decorum, in other words, simply to be themselves. Yet there was no attempt at "self-improvement" through education or culture. Both were seen by the slavocracy as characteristics of inferior Northerners, who might need to work for themselves. Reading the descriptions of the terror and horror the slave owners experienced at having to work for themselves made me question whether many historians would try to empathetically describe the perspective of Nazis, for instance. This is not to say that to do so would be categorically wrong, for indeed Nazi perspectives did contribute to the way history turned out.
But if one can, from a present historical perspective, say that a social practice was categorically wrong, as I think we can currently say about the social practices of the antebellum South or the Third Reich, is "historical empathy" appropriate? Would it not be better to say that the group that committed such social practices should simply have been liquidated along with their beliefs? This book convinced me that that is what should have happened to the Southern Planter class after the war. Such a reckoning with the Confederacy could never have happened, however, due to the itself racist character of the victorious North.
This is the history they didn't (and still don't) teach us:what it was like immediately following the end of the Civil War when a new social order and labor/management system was thrown into a battered and broken country, with the only man capable of providing leadership dead in his grave. Lincoln may not have "anticipated" all the consequences of the emancipation of slaves but with his unerring moral compass, he no doubt would have tried to rally the angels of of our better nature to demonstrate compassion and respect for the recently freed and would have not slept until he found a way to negotiate the defenses of former slave owners, to made a "colored" paid labor force palatable. Instead, what ensued was poverty, deprivation,fear, panic, raised hopes and unrealized dreams.This book covers only 2 years of the post war period, but the themes for all that we have endured as a polarized society were sown then."The problem of the 20th century is the color line", to paraphrase W.E.B Dubois; the problem of the 19th century was the entrenched belief that the white race was innately superior.Litwack painstakingly,in descriptive, mind-shaking detail, guides us thru the experience of freedmen,reminiscences of former slaves,vitriolic diatribes by bitter plantation owners, power-play scenarios enacted in New Orleans, the Sea Isles, Charleston etc,the blind and blundering efforts of politicians(good-hearted and venal), in a methodical manner, to show all aspects of the transition from slavery to alleged freedom.The stories and quotations are so excruciatingly familiar to yesterday's news stories as to be prescient.This nation, North and Sout and elsewhere,is struggling with exactly,sorrowfully, the same issues as 1866 America: are all people equal? Why does white fear black, brown,yellow and red peoples?Can literacy, education and acceptance of and access to the "work ethic" make ignorance,discrimination and bigotry disappear? I highly recommend this book to anyone trying to understand race relations, economics,government policies,social inequities and the tensions between "liberals" and "conservatives" in these acrimonious times. If there is a parallel universe in which Lincoln lived and kindness prospered, please take me there.
This is not a history of African-Americans in America or black soldiers in the Army, a history of slavery in the South or the lives of free blacks in the North. Whilst it touches on all of those things, it is predominantly an in-depth look into the experiences and sufferings of the ex-slaves in the years immediately following emancipation, which came earlier for some than others depending on the vicissitudes of war and the advances of the Union Army, but prior to Radical Reconstruction.
It's a long book and incredibly detailed, necessarily so. It's also a very painful book to read. One would expect that by its very nature, of course, but it doesn't make it any easier to read. After suffering through the hell of bondage for over 250 years, emancipation was for so many slaves a let-down, less the light at the end of the tunnel but the brief interval between one tunnel and another. Emancipation in no way spelled freedom as they would have understood it; it didn't mean equality on any terms, north or south of the Mason-Dixon Line, it didn't mean land or education or voting rights or compensation. Whilst many in the North believed slavery to be a moral wrong, they did not necessarily mean they believed the slaves to be their equals or wanted to raise them up to be so. Quite the opposite.
The ex-slave was thwarted and abused at every turn. A government keen to put the bloodshed of the Civil War behind it was keener to accommodate and compromise with the white 'traitors' of the South than it was to protect the rights of those it supposedly fought to free. In many cases the slaves were encouraged to return to their 'masters', to return to toiling the soil, to be content with the small pittance they were given in recompense - and this was freedom, this they should be grateful for! That the slaves did not rise up in rebellion and insurrection is some kind of miracle, and it would have been nigh impossible to blame them, had they done so. Rarely can an oppressed people have been so forgiving towards the oppressors, and yet what did it get them? The lessons and trials recounted in this book linger on to this day, shamefully so.