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Strategies for Survival

Recollections of Bondage in Antebellum Virginia
William Dusinberre

BUY Cloth · 264 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813928227 · $45.00 · Aug 2009
BUY Ebook · 264 pp. · ISBN 9780813928364 · $45.00 · Aug 2009
BUY Paper · 264 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813947266 · $35.00 · Aug 2021

Strategies for Survival conveys the experience of bondage through former enslaved people's own words. The source of this landmark content is a remarkable series of interviews conducted in Virginia in 1937 by WPA workers. Most of the interviewers were themselves Black; as a result, the subjects spoke with exceptional candor. William Dusinberre explores these interviews to re-create for the modern reader enslaved people's strategies for survival within the severe constrictions bondage imposed upon their lives. Religion and escape were the chief ways of coping with the indignity of family disruption, contempt, and the harsh realities of slavery. We see great creativity and variety in such responses to oppression, but we are forced to acknowledge the dispiriting realties of enslaved existence and the limits of enslaved people's resistance and agency.


With Strategies for Survival William Dusinberre solidifies his reputation as one of our finest historians of southern slavery. His unusually sensitive reading of interviews with Virginia's ex-slaves returns us to basic questions, but offers startling fresh answers. Like his classic study of slavery on the rice plantations, Strategies for Survival will quickly become a must-read for all students of antebellum American history.

James Oakes, author of Slavery and Freedom: An Interpretation of the Old South

This remarkable study of antebellum Virginia slavery displays all the qualities we have come to expect from William Dusinberre— impeccable research, creative questioning, elegant writing, and persuasive interpretations. This is a major contribution from a major historian.

Charles Joyner, author of Down By the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community

An outstanding volume that should appeal to scholars and students of slavery alike.... A wide-ranging yet finely drawn picture of both the grim realities African Americans confronted and the coping tactics they used to survive day to day.... [This] intelligent and engaging book certainly helps us understand the everyday realities of antebellum slavery.

The Journal of Southern History

Presents a full portrait of the experience of bondage. While the limits placed on slaves' ability to fashion tolerable lives for themselves is often dispiriting, stories illustrating the spirit and ingenuity with which they attempted to surmount these obstacles make compelling reading.

Civil War Book Review

An expert and comprehensive examination of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) interviews with Virginia ex-slaves, conducted almost if not entirely by African American workers.... This volume has more pain between its covers than some much longer works. All Virginians should read it.

The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

[Dusinberre] presents a nuanced portrait of slavery in antebellum Virginia... Strategies for Survival provides a thorough introduction to the Virginia WPA interviews and a classic and careful engagement with the words of former slaves, crafted by an expert historian.

Journal of the Early Republic

Strategies for Survival may even serve as a template for other historians working with similarly complicated and scant sources.

Virginia Quarterly Review

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