Stockholm Syndrome and American Slavery

b0b9a-douglassThis post is for historians of American slavery.

I was recently teaching the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and a student mentioned that he was surprised by this passage:

“Moreover, slaves are like other people, and imbibe prejudices quite common to others.  They think their own better than that of others.  Many, under the influence of this prejudice, think their own masters are better than the masters of other slaves; and this, too, in some cases, when the very reverse is true.  Indeed, it is not uncommon for slaves even to fall out and quarrel among themselves about the relative goodness of their masters, each contending for the superior goodness of his own over that of the other…They seemed to think that the greatness of their masters was transferable to themselves.  It was considered as being bad enough to be a slave, but to be a poor man’s slave was deemed a disgrace indeed!”

Does anyone know of any historical scholarship that addresses what is happening in this passage as a form of “Stockholm Syndrome?” I am not interested here in whether or not you think Stockholm syndrome was occurring here.  I am interested in whether mainstream American historical scholarship uses the category of “Stockholm Syndrome” to explain what is happening here.

3 thoughts on “Stockholm Syndrome and American Slavery

  1. He doesn’t use this term since his book predates the 1973 Stockholm bank robbery, but Stanley Elkins’s “Slavery” (1959) describes more or less the same process. Elkins controversially analogized enslaved people to concentration camp inmates who depended on and bonded with with their guards.

    For a good summary and critique of Elkins’s psychohistorical argument, see Kenneth M. Stampp, “Rebels and Sambos: The Search for the Negro’s Personality in Slavery,” Journal of Southern History, 37 (August 1971), 367–92 (https://www.jstor.org/stable/2206947).

    For an interesting critique from a sociologist, see Stanley S. Guterman, “Alternative Theories in the Study of Slavery, the Concentration Camp, and Personality,” British Journal of Sociology, 26 (June 1975), 186–202 (http://www.jstor.org/stable/589588).

    Since Elkins and the backlash following his book, his brand of psychohistory has fallen out of favor with historians of American slavery.

    Also, for what it’s worth, “Stockholm syndrome” is apparently not a diagnosis widely recognized by psychiatrists: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18028254

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