Essay about Herbert Gutman

Herbert Gutman was a professor of history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He was researcher of life of working people and slaves in the USA.

Gutman is considered as a one of the founders and supporter of “the new labor history”, which believes that ordinary people don’t receive the proper attention from the historians.

He created the critique of the “Commons school” of the labor history which put the attention only on the markets and minimizes the importance of the technological progress and cultural changes in the society.

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Gutman is best known for two major works about the slavery in America: Slavery and the Numbers Game: A Critique of “Time on the Cross” (1975) and The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925 (1976).

He increasingly turned his attention to the black family, initially in northern cities after the Civil War. This work, begun in the late 1960s, culminated in his massive “The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925”, a book which despite its hefty seven hundred pages, eliminated masses of additional material that Gutman had collected in his Buffalo and Rochester years. Ira Berlin is preparing much of this material, as well as the previously mentioned Paterson studies, for publication by Pantheon. (Kealy S.G.,1986)

His famous book “The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925” was brought out a year after the publication of “Slavery and the Numbers Game”. This book is the in-depth study of the black family in slave-holding conditions in the USA. Creating this book the author used census data, extracts from diaries, family records and other sources, which argue that the slavery didn’t overpower black family. Gutman came to a conclusion that the most of black families kept their unity and friendship in spite of the slavery. He also noticed that black families didn’t change their firmness and reliability during the first wave of migration to the North and the Civil War. But Gutman didn’t deny that during 1930s and 1940s there was the decline of the black family.

The heritance of African Americans originated from the African feeling of collectivism and responsibility to each other. The West African proverb says “It takes a whole village to raise a child”. This proverb shows us the solidarity of the black society. Gutman illustrated that black family was supported by the whole community. This sense of collectivism inheres in modern black families. The idea of responsibility was always strong. Nowadays the blood ties can be stronger that conjugal ties.

In contrast to Moyhihan’s point of view and others like him Gutman showed that the single buttress for the person, who lived in the slavery, was his family. Family had the direct attitude to the developing of the sense of collectivism, which helped the people to live. Gutman argued that slaves in spite of their life conditions were able to create their own culture and social organization.

In his book “The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925” he examined three main topics about life of black families: the way of distribution of men and women duties and rights in their families; the nature of intimate life both in the family circle and out of it; the nature of relationships between other members of the family.

Most of slaves lived in families, which were headed by father (or mother). A lot of marriages lasted as usual for a long time (for 30 or more years).

The father was respected in the family circle, and the new-born boys were very often named for their fathers.

Premarital sex was not something forbidden or damnable. But the society as usual expected the wedding in case of premarital pregnancy.

Marriages were under the “protection” of the society family community. This community supported other kinds of family relationships. Young members of family from their childhood were taught to respect the older persons. They called “uncle” and “aunt”. The adults called each other “brother” and “sister”.

Gutman focuses primarily on the family unit and showed that a unit consisting of man, woman, and child existed in about two-thirds of the cases of slave unions during the last decades of slavery on the large plantations in the Southeast. (Robinson, M. (2006)) These families were supported by owners, who wanted their slaves gave birth to their children, but owners didn’t want to give good conditions for babies’ life. Large planters who had a great number of slaves, considered these family unions.

The integrity of the family could be ruined when someone from the members of the family was sold, raped; concubinage also could be the reason of the stopping family existence. Gutman showed difficulties of preservation of the family because of the irresponsibility of White owner and possibilities of mothers and children to be sold. According to Gutman, “The acceptance of a slave norm that placed great emphasis upon a settled union and the belief that prenuptial pregnancy should be followed by marriage did not mean, that all slaves behaved accordingly”.

Gutman’s researches proved that in spite of the slavery, slaves and their progeny kept the fidelity to their community and kinship and tradition to use kinship as expression of the most important relationships in the society. “Young slaves learned about marital and family roles from whites and free blacks, but they also had the opportunity to learn from other slaves, a fact confirmed by the nearly twenty thousand North Carolina ex-slaves…who registered slave marriages”.

After the slavery stopped its existing, the traditional ex-slavery family consisted of poor man, woman, and their children. Adapting to the new society without slavery system, black families used two cultural sources: their own, which they created during the slavery, and the culture of white people. The nuclear of black family was under the threat of collapse, but it existed at the time of any conditions. According to Gutman, “Migration and the changing composition of the Afro-American household (especially the relative decline of the nuclear household) among New York City blacks in 1905 were not evidence that husbands and fathers were less frequently with the family than in the South in 1880 or 1900”.

After the emancipation the black family had dual responsibility: from the one hand they taught their children to live in new conditions, not to loose their self-respect, and work a lot. Besides they taught them to co-exist with white people, their laws and traditions, how to manage the situation when the white society was against them. They taught their children how to struggle and not to loose their own humanity. Till our days there is this duality in black families. According to Gutman, “Enslavement was harsh and constricted the enslaved. But it did not destroy their capacity to adapt and sustain the vital familial and kin associations and beliefs that served as the underpinning of a developing African American culture”.

Gutman’s contribution to the research of the American history consists of not only his writings about the life of labor people, but making this history simple and available for that people, about whom he wrote. Very often he was criticized for putting the emphasis on the working people and making the black people and their families the center of his works. Nevertheless his researches are necessary and very important for the study of the history.

The history of the American society is the history of inequality in different fields: economic, sexual, and racial. But everything is more complicated. This history is about poor people who were able to assert their democratic rights, without loosing their humanity.

Bennett L. (1996, February). The roots of Black love. Ebony, 51, 53-58. Gutman, Herbert. The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976.
Kealy S.G. (1986, May). Herbert G. Gutman, 1928-1985, and the Writing of Working-Class History. Monthly Review, 38, 22-30.
Robinson, M. (2006). Review of Herbert Gutman’s Book The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom 1750-1925. Retrieved July 8, 2008, from <>
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