In his new book, Kenneth Marshall of SUNY Oswego’s history department challenges popular perceptions of slavery in general and in the Northern United States around the turn of the 19th century.
“Manhood Enslaved: Bondmen in Eighteenth- and Early Nineteenth-Century New Jersey,” published by the University of Rochester Press, also represents “the first gendered account of slavery, how these bondmen possibly constructed masculine identities for themselves in the face of this scrutiny of oppression,” Marshall said.
“Northern slavery was an issue that I was totally unaware of until I entered college,” Marshall said.
Hearing about the subject in a class ultimately led to a passion, spurred by learning about the accounts of two white men: William J. Allinson, a prominent Quaker abolitionist, and Andrew Mellick Jr., who dictated his family memoirs after being paralyzed in a riding accident.
Those accounts, while eye-opening, had their limitations. “Allinson had an agenda couched in abolitionist rhetoric” while the invalid Mellick was trying to “redeem himself as a man” by describing the heroism and good deeds of his ancestors who owned the slaves in the story, Marshall noted. The first chapter chronicles these sources and provides context, because “you have to understand the masters before you understand the slaves’ narrative,” he added.
Through various sources, Marshall pieced together a book focusing on three slaves living in Somerset County, New Jersey—Dick Mellick, Yambo Mellick and Quamino Buccau—- during a time and area not covered in most history lessons.
“My intent was to shed light on a period of time in our history that is, quite frankly, swept under the rug,” Marshall said. “It should provide greater insight into where we once were as a nation and to where we still need to go.”
Living on rural farms represented “a very lonely existence” for Northern slaves since they were less in number and did not have the social network found in the South, Marshall said. Just like everyone else, he said, slaves aspired to marry and raise families and would work hard to achieve these goals despite the isolation and adverse conditions.
He also found evidence that slaves, instead of feeling powerless about their situations, worked to determine their fates, such as by asking to be traded or sold to places where they could better take care of their own families.
“While slavery is couched in hopelessness, I donâ€™t think they thought of their plight as hopeless,” Marshall said. “They all were family men, invested in their families, seemed to stay alive for their families. They saw themselves as more than chattel. They saw themselves as human beings, as human beings who were heads of families.”
Marshall said the book “has implications for the modern day,” as while the great gains through the civil rights movement helped immensely, the playing field is not yet level, and some anger remains.
“Rage is part of the expression of any oppressed people, and I compare the rage of the slaves to the rage of black folks living in the post-civil rights era,” Marshall said.
“I reference the work of people like Malcolm X and Richard Pryor,” he explained. “They both articulated rage in different but uniquely provocative ways. They both seemed to go back to articulate the rage of their forefathers. They spoke for all these muted voices, for people who couldnâ€™t speak for themselves.”
PHOTO CAPTION: Slavery revelations—“Manhood Enslaved,” the new book by Kenneth Marshall of SUNY Oswego’s history department, explores two topics rarely covered in history books—slavery in the Northern United States, and how slaves saw themselves as men and heads of families. His work chronicles the lives of three slaves living in New Jersey in the late 18th through early 19th centuries.
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(Posted: Jan 24, 2012)