John Blassingame, while he was a professor of history at Yale University. Photographer unknown.
African American, History
John Wesley Blassingame transformed the scholarly knowledge and perception of the lives, cultures, and traditions of 19th century African Americans through his meticulous research examining documents that revealed the voices and thoughts of enslaved people.
John Wesley Blassingame was born in 1940 in Covington, Georgia, to Grady and Odessa Blassingame. He received his BA from Fort Valley State University (1960) and his MA from Howard University (1961). He earned his MPhil (1968) and PhD in History (1971) from Yale University, mentored by historian C. Vann Woodward. Blassingame taught history at Howard University, Carnegie Mellon Foundation, and the University of Maryland before joining the faculty at Yale. He began teaching as an instructor at Yale in 1970, but quickly rose to full Professor of African American Studies, American Studies, and History in 1974. His tenure at Yale extended for 29 years, and included chairmanship of Yale’s African American Studies Program from 1981 to 1989. Over his career, he mentored generations of African American scholars.
The revolutionary significance of Dr. Blassingame’s scholarship cannot be overstated. By building a historical understanding of the experiences of enslaved people grounded in their own testimonies, documents, interviews, and narratives, Blassingame broke new ground in the paradigms and research methodologies that framed discourses about enslaved peoples of African descent. His work challenged prevailing stereotypes of meek, complacent, and devoted slaves, content with their statuses as primitive beings cared for by beneficent masters—representations that previously undergirded mainstream academic scholarship about Black slaves. In Slave Community (1972) Blassingame, in careful detail, revealed and contextualized the complexities, defiance, dignity, and creativity of enslaved communities within the oppressive system of slavery. By exposing the continuation, survival, and adaptation of African cultural beliefs and practices despite the crushing practices of slavery, Blassingame demonstrated the capacity of enslaved people, as fully developed human beings, to develop African-based as well as acculturated traditions in a new context. He illuminated how they had formed and sustained institutions and communities as well as crafted expressions of religion, music, and arts as oppositional tools of survival and resistance.
Blassingame wrote several other books, including Black New Orleans 1860-1880 (1976). He also edited six volumes of the Papers of Frederick Douglass (1979-1999).
Among his scholarship of relevance to folklorists are:
Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (1972)
Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies (1977)