INTERVIEW: David Scott x Orlando Patterson on Life, the Academy, and Slavery

Orlando Patterson

David Scott “The Paradox of Freedom: An Interview with Orlando Patterson.” Small Axe 17, no. 1 40 (March 1, 2013): 96–242.


In a long interview, Scott and Orlando Patterson discuss the sociologist and novelist’s childhood, education, public service, and books.


DS: What was your essential critique of Stanley Elkins?

OP: The main critique I have of Elkins is that I thought that the behavior of the slaves was one of dissembling. Yes, there was Sambo. The initial crude criticism by the chauvinists, by the nationalists, was that there was no such thing—Sambo was only in the heads of white people. I was critical of Elkins, but my criticism was not that. My own data showed that Quashee and Quasheba were real. And very importantly Elkins did suggest that this [personality] emerged contextually; but you can see how this would have irritated blacks in the middle of the civil rights movement! This was bad timing. He was clearly indicating that blacks became Sambos. Now, I was saying that Sambo was real enough, but it was a form of dissembling, part of that chaotic system in which slaves used this behavior as part of their psychological warfare. Blacks were “playing fool to catch wise”; that’s my favorite Jamaican proverb. But I also suggested that if you played fool to catch wise too much you could get trapped in that game. So my critique of Elkins was a more sympathetic one in the sense that I was saying, you can’t say that this is all some white man’s fantasy. It wasn’t a fantasy. And it was part, too, of the saturnalia that you had, and the pictures are there, by [Isaac Mendes] Belisario. His figures are a really great resource. There’s nothing like that in the annals of US slavery. Those prints are amazing, and they had a strong influence on me. They were mocking the whites right in front of their faces, as several astute analysts clearly saw. Lady Nugent’s Journal made it quite clear that she saw what was going on—a very interesting woman….

Read the entire interview via Duke University Press Journals ($$)

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