When Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made was published in 1974, the study of American slavery would change forever. Written by Eugene D. Genovese, an often controversial figure, the book would become as controversial as its author. Rather than emphasizing the cruelty and degradation of slavery, Genovese investigates the ways that slaves forced their owners to acknowledge their humanity through culture, music, and religion. Not merely passive victims, the slaves in this account actively engaged with the paternalism of slaveholding culture in ways that supported their self-respect and aspirations for freedom, even as that engagement limited the prospects for truly revolutionary politics among the enslaved. Roll, Jordan, Roll covers a vast range of subjects, from slave weddings and funerals, to the language, food, clothing, and labor of slaves, and places particular emphasis on religion as both a major battleground for psychological control and a paradoxical source of spiritual strength. Winning the 1975 Bancroft Prize, Roll, Jordan, Roll has since become an indispensable but contentious text for studying American slavery.
Talking with me about Roll, Jordan, Roll and its complex legacy is Joshua D. Rothman.
Joshua Rothman is the History Department Chair at the University of Alabama and is the Co-Director of Freedom on the Move: A Database of Fugitives from North American Slavery. He earned his Ph.D. in History from the University of Virginia and is the author of Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson and Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787-1861. He is currently at work on a book about the managing partners of Franklin and Armfield, the most significant domestic slave trading firm in American history.