Gift Exchange

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Gift Exchange

Cultural anthropologists and sociologists specializing in gift studies have long been interested in the socioeconomic importance of practices of giving, receiving, and reciprocating. The field owes a great debt to Marcel Mauss (1872–1950), who, in The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies (1925), argued that prestations and counter-prestations (including the exchange of ceremonies and feasts), particularly in societies and cultures without formal economic markets, formed complete social systems in their own rights. More recently, scholars such as Mark Osteen (2002) have examined the motives and meanings behind money and material exchanges, arguing that they are the building blocks of social life and interaction.

These activities call for particular attention from historians of slavery in the United States. Certainly, several scholars have focused on how, during the Christmas season, slaveholders bestowed feasts, presents, and days off from labor upon slaves. Yet, as authors Shauna Bigham and Robert E. May have observed, those historians have also "treated Christmas celebrations as one of several manifestations of planter paternalism" (1998, p. 265). To focus merely on one-way channels of gift-giving is to overlook not only the meanings Christmas held for slaves, but also the extent to which slaves themselves exchanged gifts with one another on holidays and other occasions. Indeed, an analysis of these rites can offer insight into the social, cultural, and economic lives and influence of Africans and their descendants in the United States.

For many enslaved blacks, gift-giving and commodity exchanges were instrumental to the building and maintenance of their social ties and contributed in important ways to the stability of their communities. In her essay on slaves' constructions of masculinity and ethnicity in French colonial New Orleans, for example, Sophie White shows how male slaves in the region could steal and distribute clothing in order to cement social relationships, especially with the women in their lives. "Thus," according to White, "in the case against Jupiter belonging to Sr Pradel, and Alexandre belonging to Sr Dumanoir, they each admitted to giving items of apparel to their mistresses, claiming to be motivated by the desire for sexual favors" (Gunning, Hunter, and Mitchell 2004, p. 136).

Although White's analysis is based on an examination of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century criminal cases, male slaves in the United States gained access to desirable goods through other means as well. With enslaved families frequently forced to live on separate plantations, many husbands and fathers nurtured ties to their wives and children by bestowing gifts upon them. Van Moore, who as a child had been kept as a slave on a plantation in Galveston, Texas, recalled a time when his father visited his family from a neighboring plantation. "He rid all the way on a mule, carryin' a wallet what was thrown over de back of de mule like a pack saddle, and he gives it to mammy. You know what was in dat wallet? He brung a coon and possum and some corn dodger, 'cause he thinks we don't have 'nough to eat down there" (Born in Slavery, Texas Narratives, vol. 16, part 3).

Men who were unable to deliver such goods in person could find other ways to send gifts to their families, thanks in large part to individuals known as "runners" who made trips back and forth between plantations. According to one former slave's recollection, "If [the husband and father] was smart enough to have a little garden or make little things like little chairs for his chillum to sit in or tables for 'em to eat on and wanted you to have 'em fore he could get back to see you, they would be sent by the runner" (Born in Slavery, Georgia Narratives, vol. 4, part 4). For these men, gift-giving provided a way for them to act as patriarchs and heads of the household, even when they could not reside in or operate traditional households with their wives and children.

As recipients of such gifts, enslaved women (who slaveholders certainly defined by their capacities for reproduction and labor) were able to adapt notions of femininity to their own realities. And while they may not have had the same access to material goods as their male counterparts, many female slaves used the skills and resources that were available to them to nurture ties to their loved ones. According to historian Jacqueline Jones, "while the act of cooking might not differ in a technical sense when performed for blacks as opposed to whites, it certainly assumed heightened emotional significance for the black women involved, and, when carried out in such subversive ways, political significance for social relations on the plantation" (1986, p. 31).

In considering the ways in which slaves cultivated and maintained social ties through gift exchanges, one can add texture to their understanding of how African American men and women responded to the limitations slaveholders imposed upon them. Moreover, by paying attention to gift exchanges, one can see how slaves understood, adapted to, and even challenged ideas about labor, family, and gender.


Bigham, Shauna, and Robert E. May. "The Time O' All Times? Masters, Slaves, and Christmas in the Old South." Journal of the Early Republic 18, no. 2 (Summer 1998): 263-288.

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936–1938, Library of Congress. Georgia Narratives, vol. 4, part 4. Available from

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936–1938, Library of Congress. Texas Narratives, vol. 16, part 3. Available from

Gunning, Sandra; Tera W. Hunter; and Michele Mitchell, eds. Dialogues of Dispersal: Gender, Sexuality, and African Diasporas. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

Jones, Jacqueline. Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to Present. New York: Vintage, 1986.

Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: the Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies [1925]. Trans. W. D. Halls. New York: Norton, 1990.

Osteen, Mark, ed. The Question of the Gift: Essays across Disciplines. New York: Routledge, 2002.

                                       Tamara Walker