Two area authors have been awarded a new prize for outstanding books on slavery, beating out dozens of writers whose work ranged from slavery in Colonial South Carolina to child slavery in modern South Asia.
The first Frederick Douglass Book Prize of $25,000 will be divided between Ira Berlin, of the University of Maryland at College Park, for his book "Many Thousands Gone" and Philip D. Morgan, of the College of William and Mary, for his book "Slave Counterpoint." The awards were to be presented last night at a banquet in New York, but the event was canceled because of Hurricane Floyd.
The Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition, a part of the Yale Center for International Area Studies, administers the award program, which was judged by four historians who considered more than 80 books published in 1998, according to a spokeswoman. The center, which opened in November, and the prize are sponsored by philanthropists Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman. The two winning books covered American slavery before the 19th century.
The author of several books on slavery, Berlin, 57, discarded the popular image of the all-powerful slave owner and the docile, submissive slave. He wrote that the relationship between the two--although weighted heavily on the side of the master--was one of continual negotiation. Although owners presumed their own absolute sovereignty, he wrote, "slaves never relinquished the right to control their own destiny."
Slaves had some effective weapons, Berlin wrote. They could pretend they didn't understand the order; they could slow their pace of work; break tools; disappear; or physically attack their master, much as paid laborers could do. Nearly every interaction between owner and owned forced the recognition that slavery itself continually changed and was never static.
In his book, Berlin likened the interplay to a dance. "The minuet between master and slave . . . was a constant, as master and slave continually renegotiated the small space allotted them. . . . The essence of the slaves' history can be found in the ever-changing music to which slaves were forced to dance and in their ability to superimpose their own rhythms by ever so slight changes of cadence, accent and beat."
Berlin studied four sections of the country over a two-century period and found that in each, slavery had its own geography, demography, economy, society and history. For instance, the slaves of the North supplemented the labor of family members involved in commerce, while in the Chesapeake area, labor was organized around white servants and black slaves and the production of tobacco.
"What I found was people in very difficult circumstances didn't give in," Berlin said in an interview. "They refused to accept those limitations put on them. It's a paradox, a painful paradox, to realize slavery was one of our most creative periods for music, dance and politics. It was one of the richest parts of our history, and it came during this nightmarish period."
Morgan, 50, the editor of the William and Mary Quarterly, already has received seven book awards for "Slave Counterpoint," in which he detailed 18th-century black culture in the Chesapeake Bay area and the Low Country of the Carolinas. He charts the differences in labor patterns, material conditions, family structures, master-slave relations and cultural practices of the two regions.
The black community of each of the areas was markedly different, Morgan wrote, and, "just as there are many Souths, so there were many African American societies."
They also had much in common, and Morgan devotes a chapter to the shared interest in music, dance, clothes, religion and speech.
"The great value Africans attached to music and dance, together with their prowess at both activities, was transferred to the new World," he wrote, noting Thomas Jefferson acknowledged that black people were more gifted than whites in music and movement.
Morgan found that the importance of music and dance in everyday life and the role of rhythm and percussion survived the horrors of the forced migration to America. Once here, the Africans built instruments like those they played at home and adapted the ones they found here. But according to accounts left by slaveholders, the slaves' music was always distinctively their own.
In this and in other ways, Morgan concluded that slaves were not passive people. They made themselves visible in their music and by decorating their simple clothes with dyed bits of fabric and wearing strings of colorful beads.
They created their own religious services based on the spirit world of Africa and the Christian world of America. In speech, they grafted a European vocabulary onto West African grammatical structures.
Morgan said in an interview that research into slavery is becoming more accepted as African Americans realize slavery is not a badge of shame and others recognize the need to study history to better understand today's racial climate.
"Historians want to look into the past and see how we got ourselves into this position, what the roots are and what did people do back then," he said.
Gilder said slavery is the core of America's history.
"Much is known about slavery, but little is taught," he said. "We are determined to open up the subject for students, historians and members of the public to understand."
CAPTION: Ira Berlin, of the University of Maryland at College Park, was honored for "Many Thousands Gone."
CAPTION: Philip D. Morgan, of the College of William and Mary, was honored for "Slave Counterpoint."