Patterson, Orlando 1940–
Orlando Patterson 1940–
Writer and educator
The principal scholarly challenge of writer and educator Orlando Patterson is to understand the process by which institutions such as slavery shape societal values and belief systems. While the Harvard University professor has used his sociological training to shed light on contemporary racial and ethnic issues, it is his exploration of the historical relationship between slavery and freedom that has brought him academic celebrity and in 1991 earned him a National Book Award, one of the most prestigious honors in American letters.
Orlando Patterson was bom on June 5,1940, in Westmoreland, Jamaica, the son of Charles A. Patterson, a local police detective, and Almina Morris Patterson, a dressmaker. He grew up during the time when the national decolonization movement was gaining momentum—Jamaica would see its independence from England in 1962—and was exposed throughout his early life to the effects that subjugation and imperialism had on Jamaica’s citizens. Although slavery had been abolished, the plantation system, which was still flourishing in Jamaica, revealed to Patterson the alternate faces of economic bondage that slavery manifested in the so-called civilized world.
“Once you’re on a plantation, the idea of where they originated is very strong,” Patterson commented in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). “It’s a haunting quality. Slavery did not exist, but you were very much aware of it.” Signs of English imperialism could be found everywhere, he recalled, including in the celebrations of national holidays when “Hail Britannia,” the British national anthem, would be played alongside the Jamaican national anthem. Still, in keeping with a theory he would later explore as an academic, the very subordination that Jamaican nationalists were decrying was feeding a growing commitment to freedom in the form of personal liberty and political independence. “Freedom was definitely in the air,” Patterson told CBB. “I was really coming of age when the country was coming of age.”
After attending Kingston College—modeled on an Anglican grammar school—in Jamaica’s capital city, Patterson was awarded a scholarship to attend the University of the West Indies, where he earned a degree in economics in 1962. Acutely aware that he was one of the few Jamaicans to attend the university, Patterson became politically active, debating what type of constitution the soon-to-be
Born June 5,1940, in Westmoreland, Jamaica; son of Charles A. and Almina (Morris) Patterson; married Nerys Wynn Thomas, September 5, 1965; Children: Rhiannon, Barbara. Education: University of the West Indies, B.S., 1962; London School of Economics, Ph.D., 1965.
London School of Economics, England, assistant lecturer, 1965-67; University of the West Indies, Kingston, Jamaica, lecturer, 1967-70; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, visiting associate professor, 1970-71, Allstan Burr senior tutor, 1971-73, professor of sociology, 1971—, acting chairman, department of sociology, 1989-90. Member of Technical Advisory Council, Government of Jamaica, 1972-74; special adviser to the Prime Minister of Jamaica on social policy and development, 1972-79; visiting member of Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University, 1975-76; visiting scholar, Akedemie Der Literatur (Mainz) and Universtat Trier, Germany; Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Professor, 1988-89.
Selected awards: Jamica Government Exhibition scholar, University College of the West Indies, 1959-62; Commonwealth scholar, Great Britain, 1962-65; award for best novel in English, Dakar Festival of Negro Arts, 1965; Guggenheim fellow, 1978-79; Walter Channing Cabot Faculty Prize, Harvard University, 1983; cowinner of Ralph Bunche Award for best scholarly work on pluralism, American Political Science Association, 1983; Distinguished Contributor to Scholarship Award (formerly Sorokin Prize), American Sociological Association, 1983; National Book Award for nonfiction, 1991, for Freedom in the Making of Western Culture.
Addresses: Office — Department of Sociology, William James Hall, Room 520, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138.
independent country should adopt and, on a more theoretical level, nurturing a growing interest in cultural decolonization— the ways in which a people adapt on a collective, psychological scale to newly granted political freedom.
Ironically, it was in England, the country that colonized Jamaica, that Patterson began the vigorous introspection and scholarship that would forge his mature views of the link between slavery and freedom. Running in the London literary circles of West Indian expatriates, Patterson found an intellectual resource in existentialism, the philosophical doctrine that explores the nature of human existence with an emphasis on free will. His first novel, 1964’s Children of Sisyphus, was inspired by existentialist writer Albert Camus and concerns slum dwellers in Patterson’s native Kingston.
While studying at the London School of Economics on a scholarship, Patterson learned the tenets of historical sociology, which enabled him to write his dissertation— later published as his first academic book—on the history of slavery in Jamaica. After receiving his doctorate in 1965, Patterson was appointed to the faculty but remained only two years, as he was interested in returning to Jamaica to participate in the spiritual rebuilding of his homeland.
Once back at his alma mater in Kingston, Patterson continued his historical research as well as his sociological work on the problems endemic to burgeoning Kingston slums. But the social activist in him became increasingly disillusioned and frustrated with the conservative Jamaican government. “They were getting into debt with Mickey Mouse development.” Patterson commented to CBB. “The government was very materialistic and the inequalities among the people were getting greater and greater.” Although he would become an adviser to future Jamaican governments, his various reports on urban poverty and the island-nation’s sugar industry would be undertaken as an expatriate at Harvard University in Massachusetts, where he was a visiting associate professor in 1970 and became a tenured professor the following year.
Patterson’s 1977 book Ethnic Chauvinism: The Reactionary Impulse addresses the sociohistorical roots of ethnic consciousness and criticizes the impulse of intellectuals to simplistically assume a fundamental ethnic tie among members of a minority community. Drawing on a variety of historical sources, Patterson concludes that a group boasting a cultural identity only on the basis of race or religion invariably encounters the problem of being vehemently antilibertarian and anti-individual.
Patterson further claims in Ethnic Chauvinism that economic forces are the primary vehicle for a proper, organic group consciousness; to illustrate, he cites Chinese immigrants in the Caribbean who developed an ethnic character only as a means of facilitating their entry into and domination of the wholesale grocery trade. Instead of bowing to those who thoughtlessly spout the need to unify and in so doing belittle the importance of the individual, Patterson advocates the creation of communities populated by people who share the same goals and social beliefs. Dennis Williams, reviewing the book for the New Republic, wrote, “This is an unusual and engaging book. An academic intellectual rarely risks his reputation by using his expertise in the service of a social ideal.... While disagreeing at times with Patterson’s conclusions, I respect the attempt to join scholarship to social commitment.”
With the 1982 release of Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study, Patterson further advanced his reputation as an original thinker blessed with a dazzling talent for extensive research. The book explores one of Patterson’s signature themes, the internal structure and universal elements that identify slavery and distinguish it from other forms of subordination. Focusing his attention on various societies and tribes in which slavery flourished, Patterson investigates the means by which dominant groups constantly reaffirm the status of slaves as alienated nonpersons who, in their bondage, suffered what amounted to a social death.
Departing from what he claims is the conventional historical approach to the topic, Patterson draws attention to the process of manumission—or freeing—as integral to the understanding of the institution of slavery. Manumission entails the societal rebirth of the slave and, more importantly, created a new class of freedman and freedwoman. David Brion Davis wrote in the New York Review of Books in 1983, “No previous scholar I know of has gained such a mastery of secondary sources in all the Western European languages... there can be no doubt that this rich and learned book will reinvigorate debates that have tended to become too empirical and specialized. Patterson has helped to set out the direction for the next decades of interdisciplinary scholarship.”
The crowning achievement of Patterson’s research into slavery and the ultimate exercise of his lifelong obsession with the cultural consequences of institutional subjugation was his 1991 National Book Award-winning Freedom in the Making of Western Culture, the first of a projected two-volume analysis entitled Freedom. In the book, Patterson attempts to dissect and trace the notion of freedom, which he suggests is among the most cherished yet least understood values in the Western world. Claiming that traditional approaches used to probe the emergence of freedom have invariably raised more questions than answers, Patterson covers nearly two millennia to reach a conclusion that, while perhaps disturbing, is, in his view, the most historically and sociologically sound.
In Freedom in the Making of Western Culture Patterson sets forth the idea that freedom, far from a universally innate value, grew out of repression and subordination. “The history of freedom and its handmaiden, slavery, has bruited in the open what we cannot stand to hear, that inhering in the good which we defend with our lives is often the very evil we most abhor,” he writes. “In becoming the central value of its secular and religious life, freedom constituted the tragic, generative core of Western culture, the germ of its genius and all its grandeur, and the source of much of its perfidy and its crimes against humanity.”
Patterson begins his inquiry by debunking the stereotype that the concept of freedom is and always has been recognized—sometimes honored, other times bitterly resented—in all societies. He points out, for example, that the Japanese, like many other Eastern societies, acquired a word for freedom only in the nineteenth century, and the term, far from the way Westerners perceive the value, bore a negative meaning akin to “licentiousness.” The principal question raised by Patterson concerns the factors that have led to the emergence of the concept of freedom. His answer is that large-scale slavery—covering those people bound physically by chains and those bound economically, such as serfs in the Middle Ages—in combination with the existence of manumission, is the uniquely Western condition that resulted in the mature idea of freedom.
Using a musical metaphor, Patterson argues that freedom can be seen as a chord with three elemental notes: personal freedom, the ability to act as one wants without interfering with the personal freedom of another; civic freedom, the capacity to participate in government and determine the nature of societal institutions; and sovereign freedom, the perceived right or privilege to dominate others. He claims that the chord first manifested itself in the fifth and sixth centuries in Greek society. At this time, Patterson maintains, sovereign freedom was the dominant note, apparent every time elite Greek leaders articulated their right to fight and conquer other states.
The notion of personal freedom emerged largely because of the presence of manumission, Patterson argues. Those freed from slavery embraced a newfound sense of personal autonomy that those still in bondage could covet and strive to earn. Patterson, in a discovery that he confesses was surprising, also points to the role of Greek women in cultivating a mature sense of personal freedom. Because only females from defeated states were taken as slaves of the victorious side (the males were killed), the women in their new subordinate roles were turned into nonpersons who held a yearning for the personal freedom enjoyed by others in the state. Patterson also suggests that because children born to slaves were not considered slaves in Greek society, the progeny resented their mothers’ enslavement, and the women, in looking at their children, were able to see beyond their own immediate confinement and repression. He writes in Freedom in the Making of Western Culture, “It was women who first lived in terror of enslavement, and hence it was women who first came to value its absence, both those who were never captured but lived in dread of it and, even more, those who were captured and lived in hope of being redeemed or, at the very least, being released from their social death and placed among their captors in that new condition which existentially their whole being had come to yearn for.”
Although such Greek philosophers as Plato and Aristotle argued that their society rightly excluded large segments of the population, including women, from participation in government, Patterson contends that it was the dynamic interplay of the notes of freedom that proved indomitable in fostering the emergence of the chord. “The person who has struggled to attain personal liberty comes to realize that it means nothing without civic liberty,” Patterson told CBB. “It is remarkable how very soon people demand economic and political equality as a necessary demand of being free or attaining personal freedom.”
In the first volume of Freedom, Patterson continues his intellectual journey through Roman civilization—where, because at a certain point the descendants of slaves constituted the state’s majority, the commitment to personal freedom flourished—to the spread of Christianity as a world religion, and into the Middle Ages. Of his sweeping historical study and the lessons it holds for contemporary society, Mary Lefkowitz declared in the New York Times Book Review, “Unlike many recent critics of antiquity, Mr. Patterson writes without condescension, observing that we carelessly ignore certain distressing aspects of our own society.”
The Sociology of Slavery: Jamaica, 1655-1838, MacGibbon & Kee, 1967.
Ethnic Chauvinism: The Reactionary Impulse, Stein and Day, 1977.
Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study, Harvard University Press, 1982.
Freedom, Basic Books, Volume 1: Freedom in the Making of Western Culture, 1991, Volume 2: A World of Freedom, 1993.
The Children of Sisyphus, Hutchinson (United Kingdom), 1964, Houghton Mifflin, 1965.
An Absence of Ruin, Hutchinson (United Kingdom), 1967.
Die the Long Day, William Morrow, 1972.
Patterson, Orlando, Freedom in the Making of Western Culture, Basic Books, 1991.
New Republic, February 11, 1978.
Newsweek, January 13, 1992.
New York Review of Books, February 17, 1983.
New York Times Book Review, November 17, 1991.
CBB conducted a telephone interview with Patterson on May 12, 1992.
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