Roll, Jordan, Roll by Eugene Genovese

 Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made

Eugene Genovese

Published 1974

American non-fiction

Challenge: The Well-Educated Mind [histories]


This was a massive read, in both content, context, and page length (850+). Unless you have to write a thesis or are motivated to read a tome on American slavery, then this probably won't be on your TBR any time soon. 

The only reason I read it was because it is on TWEM history list, and I stayed with it because it was intriguing, interesting, and informative. Genovese is true to providing a topic sentence at the beginning of each paragraph, and then introducing abundant examples of supporting evidence from numerous sources. 

I'm going to be honest about my experience with Roll, Jordan, Roll. I read through it with lightning speed. I did not take notes or stop to ponder anything. I underlined and stared points and topics, but I had no intention of going back. I did what Susan Wise Bauer describes as "grammar stage reading." One time, quickly through. Done. 

If I have to tell you what Genovese's main point is, it is about the world that black slaves made for themselves in America: "a separate black national culture" under "racist oppression" and "within the narrowest living space and harshest adversity," and what they did to survive it, including their creative achievements, religion, work ethic, and the relationships they forged considering how they were forced to live. Genovese also described how their world affected the white families that they lived with. The slaves were one community that depended upon the slaveowner and his family and vise versa

Genovese also incorporated evidence for the evolution of the black Christian religion, hymns, preaching, and community; folksong and folklore; the important duties, work, and skills of the slaves; the family structures under slavery; their spiritual hope; and so much more than I am including here. 

The theme of paternalism repeated throughout these 800 pages, and I mention it here because I learned in my study of Land of Hope, by Wilfred M. McClay, that after the the War of 1812, world Christianity was changing and adopting the Social Gospel, which is also a paternalistic idea that Christian nations or Christians in general are called to care for poorer societies. As the institution of slavery evolved, slaveowners saw themselves as the father of both their own families and the slave families that lived with them. I'm wondering if the Social Gospel seeped into the American South at some point. I do not remember if Genovese mentioned it, but I wonder. 

I gave this four stars because I recognize the enormity of the work involved. So, if you are looking for a comprehensive work on American slavery, include this on your list of books to read, but expect to be at it for a long time. 

I am including a clip from 12 Years a Slave, an excellent film (not connected to the book), where they sing the hymn, "Roll, Jordan, Roll." 


  1. I am going to add it to my list, but I will include the cautions you mentioned.

  2. The book I just reviewed The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby, definitely talked about ways that the Social Gospel idea was involved in the treatment of slaves, and especially the treatment of former slaves after emancipation.

    1. Ah, interesting. All the puzzle pieces are coming together.