Early Virginia's black and white culture

The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth-Century Virginia, by Mechal Sobel. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. 364 pp. $25. In ``The World They Made Together,'' Mechal Sobel, a professor of history at the University of Haifa, offers a revisionist look at the culture of the American South before 1800. Her approach presents a perspective on the South not found in comprehensive general histories, such as James M. McPherson's ``Battle Cry of Freedom'' (Oxford University Press).

As an image of the way blacks and whites related in this society, Sobel uses the revolving door that separated Thomas Jefferson's dining room and kitchen in Monticello. While the races were distinctly separate and blacks were serving whites, the door allowed a flow between the two rooms.

The result, Sobel says, is that ``interaction between whites and blacks led to the interpenetration of value systems and to the strengthening of both.''

In chapters woven with anecdotes, Sobel describes striking similarities and peculiar differences in the ways black and working-class white Virginians spent their days, how they worshiped, where they lived, and how they saw themselves in relation to the rest of the world.

Her first section, entitled ``Attitudes Toward Time and Work,'' portrays African and European agricultural societies in which similar attitudes toward work developed. Both cultures, for example, produced ``generally slow workers, who valued changes in the working pattern and holidays.''

``Their `clocks,''' Sobel explains, ``were work clocks, with both the day and the year tied to agriculture and not to a mechanical timepiece.'' When black and white workers came together in North America, such attitudes were mutually reinforced.

Sobel also finds common ground between black and white traditional religious practices. Giving root to a ``born again'' movement, blacks and whites developed ideas about death and the afterlife that merged African religious attitudes and traditional Christian views. From this union was born the ``spiritual revival,'' an African-style celebration that would become popular among both blacks and whites by the second half of the 18th century.

Sobel also suggests an African aesthetic influence on building styles in the American South. As documentation, she juxtaposes photographs of two small houses with strikingly similar construction - one built in Zaire and one in Virginia. The African house has a uniform, lightweight, and simple construction, including a long, continuous roof. The Virginia house, built by slaves, is almost identical. In terms of design, the African version is more symmetrical.

With a cool hand, Sobel ventures to address the ``peculiar institution'' of slavery as by no means acceptable, but not particularly peculiar. Most Africans, she says, would have known slavery as it existed between tribes. And most Englishmen would have been familiar with the custom of indentured servitude.

Sobel concludes that slave-master relationships were then most likely defined by both African and European expectations. To illustrate her thesis, Sobel presents colorful vignettes drawn from letters and journals.

Extensive references to the lives of Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass, George Washington, and William Byrd, another famous Virginia landowner, explore issues as diverse as interracial marriage and sexual exploitation.

Sobel repeatedly qualifies any sociological generalizations as representative. For example, she explains that although slaves had belonged to different tribes, there were enough similarities to refer to their perceptions and ideas collectively.

Still, while holidays, games, and rites of passage were often celebrated by racially mixed crowds, lines that separated black and white societies in America were distinct. They were, however, thin.

In fact, most whites seemed unaware of the extent to which their culture responded to or was influenced by black attitudes. Thomas Jefferson, for one, would write that he was only selectively influenced by black culture.

Sobel notes that Jefferson took as one of his mottoes, ``Determine never to be idle.'' She says his ``concern with time was in part a reaction against blacks' perceptions and practices, but his love of place was reinforced by theirs. [His] emphasis on rationality and life in this world was also in part developed in opposition to black views.''

Still, says Sobel, it was together that blacks and whites created a society in which ``work was minimal and pleasures of place such as hunting, fishing, sitting, and storytelling were particularly emphasized, as were those of the body - dancing, musicmaking, eating, and sex.'' By the end of the 18th century, this intimate, insulated culture would lie in the shadow of the future - the Civil War.

Mary Tabor is on the Monitor staff.

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