Turiano on Rae, 'The Great Stain: Witnessing American Slavery'

Author: 
Noel Rae
Reviewer: 
Evan A. Turiano

Noel Rae. The Great Stain: Witnessing American Slavery. New York: Overlook Press, 2018. Illustrations. 624 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4683-1513-4

Reviewed by Evan A. Turiano (Graduate Center, City University of New York) Published on H-War (June, 2020) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53959

The basic work of a history book, according to author Noel Rae, is to ask and answer, “What happened, and why?” The Great Stain: Witnessing American Slavery shuns that question in favor of another: “What was it like?” (p. 11). While Rae’s name is on the spine of The Great Stain, he does not consider himself the author but instead “the researcher, compiler, fact-checker, arranger, editor, and provider of a fair amount of explanatory and connective material” (p. 13). Rae’s characterization is essentially correct. The Great Stain is not a synthetic study of the history of American slavery; it is a highly contextualized, narratively organized primary source collection. From the fourteenth-century origins of the African slave trade through Reconstruction, this book provides a parade of extensive quotations from well-known figures like Olaudah Equiano, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Frederick Douglass as well as more marginal voices like the Swedish novelist Fredrika Bremer and Martha, a black Missouri woman left to fend for her family while her husband served in the Union army. The collective impact is a vivid, if at times disjointed, tour through the rise and fall of American slavery.

The Great Stain proceeds across fourteen chapters. Some deal with historical periods, others with steps in the process of enslavement, and some, like “Personal Stories” or “White Testimony,” with categories of evidence. Rae carefully demonstrates that Atlantic slavery was not the first nor the only form of slavery to emanate from Africa. It followed intra-African enslavement, Indian Ocean slavery, and the sub-Saharan trade. This varied story, which Rae chronicles back into the fourteenth century, demonstrates a breadth within the practices of African slavery that will surprise many students and specialists of Atlantic World enslavement.

The Great Stain’s treatment of the Middle Passage, through chapters 3 and 4, shows the author’s style at its most rewarding. Even professional historians will be shocked by the volume of available testimony from the Middle Passage. In the two decades since the publication of the Slave Voyages database (www.slavevoyages.org), scholars have increasingly appreciated the scope of slave ship rebellions by enslaved people. The stories Rae compiled here emphasize the level of coordination behind many of these efforts at self-emancipation.

The next few chapters recount a familiar origin story for American slavery—from colonial Virginia, through the Revolution, and toward the Cotton Kingdom—told through many famous characters like Cotton Mather, Phillis Wheatley, and Solomon Northrup. Here and throughout, Rae rarely dives into historical analysis. At key moments where he does, however, errors detract from his otherwise careful work. When recounting colonial Virginia slave codes and hypothesizing about their origins, Rae expresses surprise because, “as it happened, there were no uprisings in colonial Virginia” (p. 181). This erasure of the participation of enslaved Africans in Bacon’s Rebellion leads the author to miss the crucial relationship between enslaved resistance and slave law that Edmund Morgan famously detailed some forty-five years ago in American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975).

Aside from his treatment of the Middle Passage, Rae’s unique style is at its most effective when relating first-hand accounts of life in southern slavery. He interweaves long, striking passages from well-known accounts, such as Twelve Years a Slave (1853), Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) narratives with pithy summaries and contextual bites, making these primary sources accessible to students and readers within a handful of pages. In his examination of slave resistance, Rae provides poignant reminders that the most common experiences of violence and conflict in American slavery did not make headlines. Violent confrontations on the plantation were tinged with personal, familial strife on top of the inherent conflict defining the master-slave relationship, and Rae’s collection reminds us that when we only consider violence against slaves and retaliatory resistance in their aggregate we lose the way that the intimacy of day-to-day life defined those events.

Rae’s chapter titled “The Abolitionists” emphasizes interpersonal connections between the major players in the movement as it narrates American abolitionism’s evolution from Benjamin Lundy in the 1820s through the era of William Lloyd Garrison and Lydia Maria Child and into Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s leadership in the 1850s. What the chapter lacks is a sense of the movement’s depth and efficacy. A heavy focus on a handful of famous leaders and an emphasis on abolitionists inclined toward “eschewing active measures” leave readers with an understanding of abolitionism that reflects an older historiography (p. 468).

The author begins his final chapter by framing the Civil War as between a South paranoid about the future of slavery and a Republican Party—and president—consistent in its conservatism on the issue of slavery. Much of the rest of the chapter is made up of a smattering of reflections on the experiences and hardships of war from black Union soldiers, as well as tales of Union army discrimination and the fight against it. The chapter also uses accounts from white Union soldiers of their experiences fighting alongside African Americans. Readers interested in a fuller appraisal of these sources should visit Chandra Manning’s 2007 What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War (which does not appear in Rae’s bibliography).

This volume of sources will be an effective primary source companion for high school or undergraduate survey courses. However, the style of arrangement, dearth of analysis, and missteps in that analysis leave the book somewhat less productive standing on its own. To specialists, this volume is perhaps most impressive as a monument to the decades of historical and archival work that have restored the voices of the enslaved to the study of American slavery, and in doing so re-centered their role in its destruction.

Citation: Evan A. Turiano. Review of Rae, Noel, The Great Stain: Witnessing American Slavery. H-War, H-Net Reviews. June, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53959

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