Within the Plantation Household
by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese
Those whose understanding of slavery comes largely from the book (and movie) Gone With the Wind will find much to both contradict and confirm their opinions of the Old South in Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South. The plantation Tara is portrayed on the big screen as an idyllic haven for blacks and whites, a place where expressions of humor, love and compassion fill daily life, where the rhythm of life is slow and stress-free and where relations between slave and master are never mediated by violence. Noted historian Fox-Genovese, who died earlier this year, agrees that the plantations facilitated physical and emotional intimacy between slave and master, but she considers the symmetry for those who owned the “Big House” and those who worked inside it as much more complicated than what is depicted in Gone With the Wind.
No one can ignore the overwhelming historical evidence of mutual closeness between blacks and whites within the Slave South, but Fox-Genovese reminds us that such feelings were expressed in a system that bought and sold African Americans. Rather than proclaim the universal loyalty of the slave and applaud the tireless benevolence of the master, or condemn all owners as cruel beasts and celebrate every slave as a rebel, the author asks us to put aside simple generalizations and explore the complicated world that masters and slaves built together on their terms, not ours.
Fox-Genovese wants her readers to see the Big House as a household that contained both the living and working relationships of slaves and their owners. Within the physical boundaries of the household, she focuses on elite women who were of the class of Scarlet O’Hara. Like Scarlet, plantation women embraced the lady ideal because it buttressed their sense of privilege, but at the same time that ideal projected the notion that women were inherently weak and needed male protection.
Scarlet brilliantly played this role to manipulate men, but neither her strong personality nor the mental weakness of her prey adequately explains her remarkable success. The legions of men who succumbed to her deceptive ways were part of a cultural system that encouraged them to see women as helpless and deserving of their support. Ironically, Fox-Genovese finds that elite Southern women upheld gender notions that reinforced female subordination while also giving them a sense of superiority over the black dependents working inside their homes. It should come as no surprise that the plantation mistress was an ardent defender of the “peculiar institution” and why so many of them would be just as committed in their defense of the Confederate nation.
The most provocative sections of Within the Plantation Household dispel the ridiculous idea that white Southern women felt a sense of sisterhood with their female slaves since they were all “victims” of male dominance. Fox-Genovese uncovers amazing accounts of plantation women denouncing their female slaves and punishing them like any male slaveholder. A Tennessee mistress, for instance, while crying over the death of a slave she had repeatedly whipped, was observed by another slave who bitterly remarked: “Huh, crying because she didn’t have nobody to whip no more.”
Contextualizing these expressions of animosity as well as love and respect are essential if we want to understand the broader patters of thought and action in the Old South. Fox-Genovese provides a rich analysis of these fascinating confrontations between slave and master without losing her critical eye or her amazing capacity for empathy. Like no other historian before or since, she has explained how white and black Southerners could retain their own sense of humanity while living in the inhumane world of chattel slavery.
Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.