Buckner on Hilde, 'Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty in African American Communities over the Long Nineteenth Century'

Libra R. Hilde
Tim Buckner

Libra R. Hilde. Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty in African American Communities over the Long Nineteenth Century. John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020. 410 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-6066-0; $37.50 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-6067-7. 

Reviewed by Tim Buckner (Troy University) Published on H-CivWar (February, 2021) Commissioned by David Carlson (Troy University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55832

Libra R. Hilde's Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty in African American Communities over the Long Nineteenth Century adds to the growing historiography of Black masculinity by focusing on how enslaved people valued fathers and how fatherhood was a crucial component of how Black men defined themselves. While there are many studies on enslaved women and their roles within families and several books that touch on the roles that African American fathers played in the lives of their children, this is the most comprehensive work detailing the significant contributions that Black men made as fathers during slavery and in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War and Emancipation. 

This book offers two important and related contributions to the field. The first, explicitly mentioned in the introduction, is the author's intention to counter the historically persistent stereotype that Black men were indifferent fathers resulting in mothers holding more authority in the family. Rooted most especially in the Moynihan Report (1965), African American men have been represented, paradoxically, as both hypermasculine and emasculated, depending on the context. Those representations always circle back to the idea that Black men deviated from White masculinity and either explicitly or implicitly implied that White men alone could possess the qualities associated with manliness. In the nineteenth century, regardless of race, class, or region, a man was defined by protecting and providing for those who depended on him, usually family. Slavery, of course, could divorce Black men from those roles: slavers provided for the people they held as property and the power that legalized slavery gave to slaveowners meant that Black fathers often could not protect wives and children from violence or separation.

The second contribution of the book counters the idea that slavery prevented Black men from these roles. Without a doubt, slavery interfered with Black fathers' ability to provide and protect their families, but that does not mean that they were either indifferent or incompetent fathers. Instead, by using slave narratives, Hilde confirms that enslaved children most often admired their fathers when they served in the same kinds of caretaker roles that Whites valued. Fatherhood could take many forms. Enslaved families were by necessity matrilocal since status followed the mother, and enslaved children were the property of the mother's owner. While abroad husbands could not simply choose to relocate to his wife's plantation, they often found ways to visit and serve important roles in their children's lives. Narratives from runaway fathers detail the agonizing choices they had to make to live near their families or to run away to freedom. Those fathers who gained the means to purchase their families' freedom had to determine the order of whom to buy first. Fathers who did not have the means to provide for their children materially could do so in other ways: training their children to deal with Whites or offering religious teachings helped establish meaningful relationships and improve their lives.

Despite the various ways Black fathers could assert themselves as men, their expressions of manliness had limitations and could only be allowed as long as they did not challenge White masculinity's supremacy. If African American men asserted a form of masculinity that threatened White authority and power, through revolt, for example, they could expect to be publicly, and probably violently, emasculated. There were many avenues for masculine expression in the nineteenth century within African American communities, even if those ways were limited by slavery and, later, Jim Crow America's racism. Like many other recent works on Black masculinity, Hilde ably illustrates that African American men found many ways to demonstrate that they were, in fact, men. While some men might have chosen violent revolt or running away as a way to show masculinity or to resist the dehumanization of slavery, fatherhood, in its many forms, was a much more common, though under-recognized, means of performing a masculine role in a public way.

Finally, this study represents an excellent usage of slave narratives. Many historians have rejected slave narratives as sources because of problems in collecting twentieth-century interviews of former slaves or the abolitionist cause of nineteenth-century narratives. Hilde does not ignore those challenges. Instead, the author uses the aggregate similarities in how so many enslaved and formerly enslaved men and women discussed and remembered their fathers to investigate how these communities valued them. The result is a cogently argued work that offers critical insight into an important but understudied aspect of African American history.

Citation: Tim Buckner. Review of Hilde, Libra R., Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty in African American Communities over the Long Nineteenth Century. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. February, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55832

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.