Monday, October 24, 2011

American culture is a melange of many distinct subcultures


I have been reading American Slavery: 1619-1877 by Peter Kolchin. The book traces the evolution of American slavery from a time when both African born slaves and European born slave holders were trying to figure out how to live with each other until after the Civil War, the emancipation proclamation and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. He is very good at distinguishing the evolution in the southern states with large plantation agriculture for export with large slave holdings, versus that in the mid Atlantic colonies which tended to have smaller plantations and fewer slaves per plantation, versus that of the north in which relatively few white families owned slaves and those held relatively few.

I have only read a bit of the book, but I was struck by Kolchin's view that slaves and slave owners had different cultures. It seems to me that they had different sub-cultures, but that neither subculture can be understood without reference to the other. Of course, each subculture picked up memes from the other and from the origin old world cultures from which the slaves and slave owners had descended, but more important, the two sub-cultures might better be understood as co-evolving, each due to the pressures of the other as well as to the natural evolution of creole cultures.

Indeed, both European-American and African-American subcultures were also co-evolving with the native American cultures with which they were in contact. Moreover, there were different subcultures among the African immigrants, the European immigrants and the Indian tribes. Rather than a melting pot, we had a complex co-evolution of many subcultures which combined and evolved to make modern American culture in all its complexity.

In recent previous postings I have been noting how much income inequality there is in the United States, but the lack of homogeneity of the American population has deep historical roots; we are more one people than we were in the past, but have a long way to go before we reach the homogeneity typical of the European nations of the 19th century. Similarly, there is not much mobility in America today, at least as compared with Denmark, but there was even less upward mobility for a slave or an Indian in the 19th century.

So much of history was written as if the entire population of the United States was composed of white men, indeed white men of English or German ancestry. When you think of the Indians, the African immigrants, the Asian immigrants, the immigrants from Ireland, Italy and Central and Eastern Europe, not to mention women, the history is quite different.

1 comment:

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