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Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South

Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South

by Michael A. Gomez
Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South

Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South

by Michael A. Gomez

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The transatlantic slave trade brought individuals from diverse African regions and cultures to a common destiny in the American South. In this comprehensive study, Michael Gomez establishes tangible links between the African American community and its African origins and traces the process by which African populations exchanged their distinct ethnic identities for one
defined primarily by the conception of race. He examines transformations in the politics, social structures, and religions of slave populations through 1830, by which time the contours of a new African American identity had begun to emerge.

After discussing specific ethnic groups in Africa, Gomez follows their movement to North America, where they tended to be amassed in recognizable concentrations within individual colonies (and, later, states). For this reason, he argues, it is possible to identify particular ethnic cultural influences and ensuing social formations that heretofore have been considered unrecoverable. Using sources pertaining to the African continent
as well as runaway slave advertisements, ex-slave narratives, and folklore, Gomez reveals concrete and specific links between particular African populations and their North American progeny, thereby shedding new light on subsequent African American social formation.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807861714
Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date: 11/09/2000
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
Lexile: 1580L (what's this?)
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Michael A. Gomez is a professor of history at New York University.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


In 1822 a most remarkable experiment was undertaken in and around Charleston, South Carolina. A fifty-five-year-old seafarer, born in either Africa or the West Indies, attempted to destroy the very foundations of American slaveocracy. An examination of Denmark Vesey's insurrection is instructive in that it not only speaks to the capacity of slaves to engage in the ultimate form of resistance but also reveals the nature of social relations within the slave community by the first quarter of the nineteenth century. People of African descent, born in either Africa or the Americas, coalesced for the purpose of realizing a common objective. Free blacks also chose to cast their lot with those in legal bondage, after sober assessment revealed that their own status was precarious if not illusory. Further, the critical role of the evolving black church as a center of resistance and affirmation is underscored by the observation that most, if not all, of the leaders of the revolt were also class leaders or religious instructors in the African Church in Charleston. It is therefore possible to view this endeavor as an attempt to bridge differences of origin, status, and culture by means of religion. As such, the Vesey movement serves as a model for many such subsequent efforts.

    Vesey's plans for insurrection were uncovered and those suspected of involvement eventually apprehended. Following legal proceedings, some thirty-five blacks were hanged, at least forty-three were deported to either Africa or the Caribbean, andanother fifty-three were released. The trial of Denmark Vesey and his colleagues is particularly enlightening in that it reveals important insights into his organization and perspective. A number of prosecution witnesses, the majority of whom were either slaves or free blacks, testified to Vesey's unique vision of deliverance from bondage, a vision that involved blacks not only from North America but also from Africa and the Caribbean. One witness, testifying specifically against the codefendant, Rolla, was assured by the latter that "Santo Domingo and Africa would come over and cut up the white people if we only made the motion first." Another witness substantiated the diasporic content of Vesey's message: "Vesey told me that a large army from Santo Domingo and Africa were coming to help us, and we must not stand with our hands in our pockets; he was bitter towards the whites." The Haitian revolution of 1791—1804 was a powerful example of the slaves' potential, its implications reverberating throughout the Americas. Vesey's ability to grasp those implications and incorporate them into an unprecedented prescription for insurrection was stunning in its breadth of conceptualization.

    Vesey was himself the very embodiment, the quintessential prototype of the African-European cultural confluence: a Bible-teaching Christian who simultaneously embraced the political leadership and spiritual claims of one of his lieutenants, Gullah Jack, a "conjurer" of significance in his day. Rolla's allegedly voluntary confession includes a poignant depiction of Vesey as a man of deep religious conviction who would "read to us from the Bible, how the Children of Israel were delivered out of Egypt from bondage." The prosecution witness, William, testified that Vesey "studied the Bible a great deal and tried to prove from it that slavery and bondage is against the Bible." Notwithstanding his Christian beliefs, however, Vesey apparently subscribed to the efficacy of Gullah Jack's abilities as a conjurer, for he told one Frank that "there was a little man named Jack who could not be killed, and who could furnish them with arms, he had a charm and he would lead them." In the trial of Peter Poyas, another Vesey codefendant, the fame and reputation of Gullah Jack is noted by a witness who echoes Vesey's claim that "the little man who can't be killed, shot, or taken is named Jack, a Gullah Negro." So fearful was the report of Gullah Jack that a witness testifying against him begged the court to "send me away from this place, as I consider my life in great danger from having given testimony... I was afraid of Gullah Jack as a conjurer." With the Bible in his right hand and Gullah Jack to his left, Denmark Vesey prepared to initiate the apocalypse.

    In addition to force and faith, Vesey realized that, absent a third element, his insurrection could not succeed. This third component called for the deemphasis of African ethnic ties while fording the free-slave divide. In their stead, Vesey sought to elevate a single status, a lone condition, that of blackness, of descent from Africa. The theme of unity based solely upon common African ancestry became a refrain in Vesey's message. Prosecution witness Frank conveyed Vesey's words that "the Negro's Situation was so bad he did not know how they could endure it, and was astonished they did not rise and fend for themselves," Rolla's confession reiterates Vesey's concern that "we must unite together as the Santo Domingo people did, never to betray one another; and to die before we would tell upon one another." The confession of Jesse, another Vesey insider and confidante, confirms that Vesey understood the struggle in racial terms: "He said, we were deprived of our rights and privileges by the white people ... and that it was high time for us to seek our rights, and that we were fully able to conquer the whites, if we were only unanimous and courageous, as the St. Domingo people were." Given the task ahead, Vesey deemed it essential to transcend all barriers to racial solidarity.

    Closer examination of Vesey's insurrection, however, demonstrates weaknesses inherent in its approach and derivative of the circumstances out of which it sought deliverance. Furthermore, the analysis speaks to the problematic process through which an African American identity was forged during the period of legal enslavement. For although the movement attempted to transcend ethnic and social differences in the quest for freedom, it achieved neither its ultimate objective nor the fashioning of a unifying principle. Organized according to ethnicity, the revolt consisted of an Igbo column led by Monday Gell and a Gullah contingent (a reference to the Congolese-Angolan and/or Gola members of the slave community in the Charleston area and their descendants) under Gullah Jack, in addition to other companies. The division of Vesey's forces into such constituent segments was a concession to the social realities of time and place and clearly indicates that although the leaders of the insurrection had reached a level of political awareness whereby they were prepared to work together, their adherents had not. Rather, the principle of mobilization for the latter called for the primacy of ethnicity and attendant culture over race and intercultural relatedness. As separate ethnicities, the followers of Monday Gell and Gullah Jack were willing to assume responsibilities equally shared by others of like status and interests, but not as individuals organized without regard to ethnic considerations.

    The segmented nature of Vesey's organization is important but by no means singular evidence that the early-nineteenth-century African American community was halt at various stations between ethnicity and race in the continuum of identity. Yet resolution to the query of identity was critical to the process of response and regeneration. This book seeks to examine the means by which Africans and their descendants attempted to fashion a collective identity in the colonial and antebellum American South. It is a study of their efforts to move from ethnicity to race as the basis for such an identity, a movement best understood when the impact of both internal and external forces upon social relations within this community are examined. The analysis yields the following conclusion: prior to 1830, the movement toward race and away from ethnicity met with varying degrees of success relative to place and period, and in any case was significantly influenced by ethnic antecedents. In some instances, social stratification within the African American community can be related to preceding ethnic differences. But whether related to ethnicity or not, classism emerged as the principal obstacle to a race-based collective concept.

    The idea that the African identity underwent certain transformations is by no means novel. Two of the most profound examinations of that transformation are Amiri Baraka's (LeRoi Jones) Blues People (1963) and Sterling Stuckey's Slave Culture (1987). The former seeks to demonstrate the various stages and contours of this transition by following the evolution of African American music; the latter accomplishes a similar operation through an examination of the ring shout and nationalist ideology. The premise of Baraka's work is that the movement from African-based work songs to sorrow songs to primitive blues to jazz to classical blues to swing to bebop and beyond reflects a changing self-perspective in conjunction with political and socioeconomic developments over time. Stuckey argues that the ring shout was a principal mechanism by which Africans of varying ethnicities were able to span their differences. In either case, the conclusion is that black folk began to see themselves differently.

    Both Baraka and Stuckey have successfully demonstrated the possibility of observing critical moments of creativity by way of cultural efflorescence. This study seeks to build upon such models of transformation by examining certain processes through which people of African descent attempted to reconstitute their collective identity. While recognizing the validity and importance of exploring the political and social implications of musical innovation as well as folkloric tradition, this investigation will draw from additional indexes of sociocultural transition to make the case.

    In order to understand the process by which the African American identity was formed, and to flesh out the means by which relations within the African American community developed, it is essential to recover the African cultural, political, and social background, recognizing that Africans came to the New World with certain coherent perspectives and beliefs about the universe and their place in it. What were Africans' worldviews? What were their values, ethics, beliefs? What really mattered to them? Once questions such as these are addressed, it becomes possible to investigate how Africans' interpretation of reality changed as a consequence of the enslavement process and how this reorientation was communicated to descendants.

    Given advances in the study of Africa, it is possible to push beyond perfunctory discussions of great Sudanic empires (read Ghana, Mali, and Songhay) in the attempt to say something about the African past. We can now discuss with greater accuracy the origins of subject African populations and the specific forms of their cultural and political accoutrements. For although there are striking similarities of culture and social and political organization in the various regions of Africa, there are also important differences. The key to understanding the process by which these diverse groups of immigrants attempted to fashion a sociocultural coherency is an appreciation of the nature of these differences.

    This investigation does not proceed beyond 1830, by which time the South assumes a much more militant stance in its apologetic of slavery. By that date, the relative numbers of American-born slaves far outnumber those of the native African, and the general patterns of the emerging African American identity are discernible. At the same time, there is significant diminution of explicit references in the primary sources to activities of African-born individuals (which is consistent with the fact that their numbers are dwindling), thus making it difficult to continue a line of inquiry specifically concerned with their position and role. A translation has taken place by 1830, consistent with the demographic evidence, that delineates the demise of a preponderant African sociocultural matrix and the rise of an African American one in its place. It is the objective of this study to more clearly define and understand this translation.

    My sources can be grouped into six categories: secondary literature concerning North American slavery, scholarly appraisals of the transatlantic slave trade, sources that comprise the debate over the degree and implications of African cultural retentions within the North American slave population, the largely anthropological discussion of the acculturative process (which is clearly related to the former category and barely distinguishable from it), the body of historical and anthropological literature that concerns West and West Central Africa, and those primary materials that form the basis of this study." A major part of the primary materials is the corpus of curiously underused runaway slave advertisements in southern newspapers. These are particularly important in assigning ethnic identities to the slave population; that is, many notices for absconded individuals contain references to place of origin, original names, patterns of scarification, and so on. Of course, such information can be ascriptive; where a slave actually originated and where she was believed to have originated could vary greatly. This same problem occurs regarding the origins of the African slave population as a whole. However, it will be argued here that it is possible to match overall patterns of importation with references to specific individuals and communities, thus obtaining a plausible picture of the general ethnic pattern in the South.

    Before proceeding, certain terms and concepts require clarification. The word community is used here to convey the concept of a collection of individuals and families who share a common and identifiable network of sociocultural communications (for example, kinship, dietary patterns, labor conventions, artistic expressions, language) that have their origin in either a particular geographic area and period of time or a unique system of beliefs and rationalization. The size of the community can be broadly or narrowly defined by either expanding or contracting the area of origin in question or by adjusting the criteria by which a belief system is determined as such. Thus it is possible to speak of both an African and an Igbo community concurrently; it is also permissible to propose the existence of a Muslim community, as the latter refers to a shared tradition of faith. However, the use of the term does not necessarily imply conscious affinities; that is, those members of varying backgrounds who are described as comprising an African community in America or who are subsequently included in the emergent African American community may not have so viewed themselves. Indeed, that they may not have shared such a perspective speaks to the very means by which the African American identity was formed, namely, through a series of related but at times contradictory processes, developing from both within and without the African collective. Those of African descent had to relate to each other not only according to the logic of their shared condition but also in response to the perception of their condition by those outside of it. The various avenues along which these discourses traveled, in addition to their multiple destinations, constitute the focus of this study.

    Ethnicity refers to the same network of sociocultural communications and so at times can be used interchangeably with community, but it lacks the elasticity of the latter term. It is therefore employed much more restrictively, so that one cannot speak of a Muslim ethnicity; neither can the descriptor African satisfy an inquiry into the specific background of an individual. Bound by language, culture, territorial association, and historical derivation, ethnicity's purpose is to dissociate rather than associate, to engage in a reductionist enterprise as opposed to aggregation. Implicit in the concept of ethnicity is the determination of that which is unique about a group of people; it is an attempt to understand the essence of what distinguishes various collections of individuals.

    To be sure, more recent Africanist literature calls attention to the uncritical use of ethnic categorization. There are two basic reasons for this trend. First of all, it is possible to view certain ethnic labels as artifacts of the slave trade. Second, colonialist ideology played a role in the criteria used to define particular ethnicities. Vansina's study of populations in southern Gabon, for example, concludes that requirements of colonial administration resulted in novel and artificial groupings, and that absent the further qualification of ethnicity by territorial specificity, the concept is largely useless if not misleading.

    The preceding observation cautions that the history of African social formations is enormously complex. A significant number of these formations did not conform to notions of ethnicity, so that the conscious loyalties of considerable numbers did not extend beyond the village, the village group, or the town. Many such relatively small-scale, culturopolitical group identities were family- or kin-based. At the opposite end of the spectrum were large, centralized states and the phenomenon of the empire (the nuclear state and its subject provinces, themselves formerly centralized and independent). Territorially smaller, densely populated villages and territorially larger, sparsely populated states are also found in the historical record.

    Genres such as West African Arabic literature reveal, however, that ethnicities clearly existed prior to colonialism or any other contact with Europeans; some of these sources antedate the colonial period by hundreds of years. To cite a few examples, al-Khuwarizmi refers to the Zaghawa (possibly the Kanuri) near Lake Chad as early as the mid-ninth century. Al-Ya'qubi, also writing in the ninth century, identifies the "kingdom of Malal," an early reference to Malinke, who would go on to found the Mahan empire. Imperial Songhay's ethnic consciousness is reflected in the titles of government officials such as the Barbush-mondio (in charge of the Barabish Arabs), the Maghsharen-koi (leader of the Tuareg of Azawad), the Dendi-fari (governor of the province from which the Songhay people originated), and so on; and the Sorko and the Arbi (a difficult group to identify) are discussed as ethnicities in several sources. Shaykh Ahmad Baba (1556-1627) of Songhay specifically listed the Mossi, the Dogon, and the Yoruba, among other groups, as unbelievers eligible for legal enslavement. And the written and oral traditions agree that the Serrakole (or Soninke) trace their ethnic distinctiveness as far back as ancient Ghana itself. In other words, ethnicity can be detected very early in West Africa.

    These and other ethnic identities were formed and facilitated by some combination of centralized states, extensive commercial networks, religion, language, and culture long before exportation via the transatlantic slave trade. This study will further argue that the progression of the slave trade from the barracoon to the field created conditions under which the latent potential of ethnicity developed even among those who were not consciously so disposed prior to their capture. Whether fully formed in Africa or America, ethnicity is crucial to an understanding of African American ethnogenesis.

    Directly related to the issue of the formation of the African American identity is the question of acculturation. If by acculturation it is meant a process by which two or more previously distinct and dissociated cultures begin to interact and exchange content in a given locale, resulting in a cultural hybrid of some sort, then it is absolutely essential to examine the political and economic context of the exchange to accurately appreciate its dynamics and consequences. Such a transfer rarely took place within a political vacuum; it certainly did not in the colonial and antebellum South.

    Mintz and Price have written that "the monopoly of power wielded by the Europeans in slave colonies strongly influenced the ways in which cultural and social continuities from Africa would be maintained as well as the ways in which innovations could occur." If this was true of the West Indies, the context of the comment, it is even more applicable to the American South, where the various European and African cultures by no means enjoyed equal footing. Due to the privileging of the former, it becomes very difficult to evaluate circumstances in which elements of one culture merged with, were subsumed by, succumbed to, or existed in static and creative tension with those of another without taking into consideration the political disequilibria influencing the process.

    There were, in fact, at least two realms of acculturation in the American South. First, there was the world of the slaves, in which intra-African and African—African American cultural factors were at play. This was by far the more complicated of the two realms, as differences and affinities among those born in Africa and those of African descent born in America (and even those shipped to North America from elsewhere in the New World) were negotiated synchronously. But there was obviously interaction with the host society—the white world—both slaveholding and nonslaveholding. The dynamics of cultural transfer within this second realm were conditioned by the asymmetry of power between slave and nonslave. Thus the exchange could not have been "fair"; there is no way to determine the relative strengths and weaknesses of the participating cultures under such conditions. To therefore attempt an analysis of acculturation without taking into consideration issues of hegemony and subjugation is to engage in a misinformed and arguably meaningless abstraction.

    To be sure, there are other factors involved in the phenomenon of cultural exchange between those of European and African descent. Herskovits, in insisting upon a comparative approach to the question of acculturation in the New World, examined the characteristics of West Indian and Latin American slave societies in an effort to understand the North American counterpart. He noted that the degree of contact between whites and blacks, the diverging levels of contact between various categories of slaves and white in the same locale (for example, "house" versus "field" slaves), and the widely divergent range of slave responses to such contact are all important matters to consider when studying cultural exchange. The degree and form of contact, in turn, were dependent upon such factors as ratios between whites and blacks, urban and rural contexts, the climate and topography, and the nature and consequent organization of the plantation in question. After taking all into consideration, he concluded that the United States could be distinguished from the rest of the Western Hemisphere "as a region where departure from African modes of life was greatest, and where such Africanisms as persisted were carried through in generalized form, almost never directly referable to a specific tribe or definite area."

    There are two major points to be made in response to the preceding observations (from a work both pioneering and enduring). First, although reference is made to the variable of plantation organization and the related issue of control as factors in acculturation, it escapes appropriate attention that the very context of such exchange immediately introduces a distortion into the process. Second, subsequent research has substantially qualified the question of African cultural continuity in North America to the extent that it is now possible, indeed necessary, to examine this continuity within the framework of ethnicity. A more informed discussion of the role of ethnicity can only further elucidate an examination of acculturation. As a result of these two realms of acculturation, a polycultural African American community would emerge. That is, African Americans would maintain related yet distinguishable life-styles. The first realm of interaction saw the rise of volitive cultures (or set of related cultural forms), the elements of which were voluntarily negotiated and subsequently adopted by the slaves themselves. Such cultures were displayed beyond the gaze of the host society. What the slave really believed, how she actually perceived the world, how interpersonal relations were really conducted, were all issues of life engaged in a manner as freely and as fully as was possible within this first realm, given the slave regime.

    At the same time, people of African and European descent were involved in extensive exchange within the second realm, only in this instance the political and economic control of the latter was such that intervention into the acculturative process was unavoidable. The host society enjoyed physical, psychological, and military powers of coercion and could to varying degrees determine the cultural choices of the enslaved. As a consequence, what emerged was not simply the synthesis of an encounter between European and African cultural forms but a system of cultural codes of imposition, a culture of coercion.

    The African American therefore engaged in polycultural rather than syncretic life-styles. Both the culture of coercion and the cultures of volition were simultaneously maintained, one in the open arena (around white folk), the others in the slave quarters and anywhere else absent white representation. But even in the company of whites, in face of the coercive experience, the desire of the slave to define his own reality resulted in what Herskovits has called "reinterpretation." That is, while the culture of coercion tended to dominate the forms of expression, the intent and meaning behind the slave's participation was quite another matter. The slaveholder may have commanded conformity in deed; he could not, however, dictate the posture of the inner person. It was precisely as the song says:

    Got one mind for white folks to see,

    'Nother for what I know is me,

    He don't know, he don't know my mind.

    A familiar example of the phenomenon of reinterpretation is found in the realm of religion. As practiced in North America, Protestantism tended to be rigid and inflexible, hostile to the kind of association between African deities and Christian saints found in a number of Catholic societies elsewhere in the New World. Under these circumstances, the African convert to Protestantism (such conversion was relatively rare in the colonial period and increased only incrementally during the antebellum) may have very well reinterpreted the dogma and ritual of the Christian church in ways that conformed to preexisting cosmological views. In the presence of the host community, reinterpretation was the lone option available to the slave. Once removed from the gaze, however, the slave was free to Africanize the religion, thus engaging in reinterpretation and true synthesis simultaneously.

    It is the synthesis that best characterizes the activity within the volitive realm of acculturation. In music, art, folklore, language, and even social structure, there is sufficient evidence to conclude that people of African descent were carefully selecting elements of various cultures, both African and European, issuing into combinations of creativity and innovation. Such a process is consistent with the nature of viable cultures; that is, they have the capacity to change and adapt when exposed to external stimuli. The African American slave community, within the volitive realm, made deliberate cultural choices. They borrowed what was of interest from the external society, and they improved upon previously existing commonalities of African cultures in such ways that, with regard to music for example, the slaves' "style, with its overriding antiphony, its group nature, its pervasive functionality, its improvisational character, its strong relationship in performance to dance and bodily movements and expression, remained closer to the musical styles and performances of West Africa and the Afro American music of the West Indies and South America than to the musical style of Western Europe." In fact, the African antecedent would inform every aspect of African American culture, not simply music. The question remains: What were the mechanisms by which syntheses were created, especially regarding the resolution of interethnic differences? The contention here is that, although an exhaustive answer requires more extensive research, it is likely that the solution relates closely to the ways in which the various ethnicities and their progeny interacted and sought to address the fundamental question of identity.

    The creation of the African American collective involved a movement in emphasis away from ethnicity and toward race as the primary criterion of inclusion. That is to say, an identity based upon ethnicity was often a practice both very African and very ancient; race, a social construction intimately informed by the political context, was relatively new and without significant meaning in much of Africa at the dawn of the transatlantic slave trade. Race, an elusive term resistant to scientific definition, was essentially invented by Europeans in an effort to categorize various populations both in Europe and beyond. It would only acquire a distinct meaning for Africans with the growing frequency of interaction with whites involved in slaving and other commercial activities.

    The reference at this juncture to the European factor allows for a related point to be established, namely, that Europeans in the New World also engaged in a process of reidentification. Importantly and especially in what would become the United States, the European-turned-American established his new identity at the expense of people of Native American and African descent. As the white settler community grew in North America, and as successive generations became increasingly distanced from Europe culturally and psychologically, the settlers began to undergo a reevaluation of their collective personality. The American Revolution was the logical consequence of this development, but it did not end there. The American would continue to search for ways in which he could distinguish himself from his European counterpart. The national character, unlike the European's, was formed by the existence of the frontier, by the abundance of land and means of subsistence, by the exaltation of property, by a new and constitutionally defined relationship between the state and the church. But the national character was also determined by the white American's juxtaposition (and transposition) with the Native American, viewed as living in a veritable state of nature, That is, whatever the American was in the process of becoming, it was necessarily opposite that of the character and condition of the Native American.

    Recent work by Patterson and Morrison substantiates the point that if such were the case for the Native American, it was doubly true for the Africa. Patterson's argument that the concept of freedom is inextricably connected to and derivative of the condition of slavery is particularly germane to this discussion, for people of African descent became the very essence of slavery. Although the reality is that the American national character has been thoroughly influenced by the African presence, and although American culture is distinctive largely because of the African contribution, these consequences were certainly not by design. On the contrary, the American character was constructed to be synonymous with freedom and the American political experiment a guarantor of the property owner's interests. But in order to know the true nature of freedom, in order to comprehend what it meant to possess, indeed, in order to identify those properties consistent with full humanity, it was necessary to have illustrations of that which constituted their antitheses.

    The African slave and her progeny fulfilled this need like no other group, occupying that cranial region in which are preserved concretized examples of antonymic content and allowing for the procession of binary oppositional thinking. In this way, the enslaved black man was the personification of the absence of freedom, nobility, virtue, and anything else consistent with what was wholesome and admirable. By definition, the African came to represent all that the American could never be. These properties were deemed inherent, race the explanatory factor.

    Enslaved Africans had to learn the significance of race. Accustomed to their own identification processes, they were viewed by the host society as so many variations on the same theme. It has been assumed that people of African descent automatically shed their earlier affinities and began to take on the mantle of race. This movement toward race and away from ethnicity is presumed to have been a function of time and fading memories. Such has been the assumption.

    Without question, the evidence is clear that a significant proportion of the African American community made the transition from ethnicity to race. This was a process that contained a fundamental opposition in that the concept of race originated from without, yet the process was Africanized in that a degree of unity was achieved against the interests of the host society. This basic dialectic—the adoption of an identity forged by antithetical forces from both without and within the slave community—is itself emblematic of the contradictory mechanism by which the African American identity was shaped. But beyond this assertion is the more difficult and complex matter of how such unity was achieved. Did Africans simply decide one day to eschew their ancestral heritage and become "new Negroes"; did they simply forget as the years passed by?

    This brings the inquiry to the central issue with which it is concerned. That is, contrary to the foregoing, Africans and their descendants did not simply forget (or elect not to remember) the African background. Rather, that background played a crucial role in determining the African American identity. Put another way, given the importance of African ethnicity, it is inescapable that ethnicity had a direct impact on African Americans' self-perception. The African American represents an amalgam of the ethnic matrix; that is, the African American identity is in fact a composite of identities. In certain areas and periods of time, the composite approached a uniform whole, as the transition from ethnicity to race was more thorough-going. But for other times and locations, the composite was fragmented and incomplete. When incomplete, differences having their origin in ethnic distinctions were in instances carried over into differences of status, thus transforming the original ethnic divide without ever having grappled with an effective reconciliation. But whether fragmented or whole, the means by which these results were achieved have heretofore remained unexamined. Hopefully, this book will cast some light on these matters. What follows is a sketch of the content.




Copyright © 1995 Neal Ascherson. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents


Acknowledgments Chapter 1. Vesey's Challenge Chapter 2. Time and Space Chapter 3. Warriors, Charms, and Loas: Senegambia and the Bight of Benin Chapter 4. Prayin' on duh Bead: Islam in Early America Chapter 5. Societies and Stools: Sierra Leone and the Akan Chapter 6. I Seen Folks Disappeah: The Igbo and West Central Africa Chapter 7. Talking Half African: Middle Passage, Seasoning, and Language Chapter 8. Tad's Query: Ethnicity and Class in African America Chapter 9. Turning Down the Pot: Christianity and the African-Based Community Chapter 10. The Least of These

Appendix: Census Estimates for 1790, 1800, 1810, 1820, and 1830
Notes Selected Bibliography Index

2.1 Decadal Exports for the Whole of the British Slave Trade, 1700-1807
2.2 African Importation into North America, 1626-1810
2.3 Growth of the Black Population by Region, 1630-1780
2.4 Growth of the Black Population, 1790-1860
2.5 Estimates of the Percentage of African-Born, 1620-1860
2.6 New Estimates of Origins
2.7 Final Revision of Origins and Percentages of Africans Imported into British North America and Louisiana
2.8 Decadal British Export Trade by Region, 1700-1807
4.1 Percentages of Africans Imported into North America from Regions Containing Muslim Populations
7.1 Quality of English or French Spoken by Africans

2.1 West Africa in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
2.2 West Central Africa, 1400-1600
2.3 West Central Africa, 1600-1800
6.1 Africans in the American South by Area of Origin

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

A substantial attempt to bridge the persisting disjunction between the history of Africa and of its trans-Atlantic diaspora.—Journal of African History

A well-researched, carefully delineated study.—Choice

Gomez is the first trained historian of Africa to draw on the maturing field of African history to try and sense how Africans brought here as slaves, and the children they raised in slavery, became Americans. . . . Gomez gracefully and distinctively enlivens slaves' understandings of themselves as Igbo, Muslims, parents, children, and—eventually—'Africans' and Americans.—Journal of Southern History

This very important book deepens our knowledge about the major African ethnic groups important to the cultural formation of the United States over time and place and reframes the discourse on African American cultures.—Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Rutgers University

Deeply researched in both African and North American sources. . . . His work is carefully organized, with many landmarks for the reader. Well balanced and written, it is a significant contribution to the African experience in America.—International Journal of African Historical Studies

Rich and forceful interpretation of the process by which the many ethnicities of Africa became a race in the American South.—William & Mary Quarterly

Every so often an essentially synthetic work appears that is more than a synthesis. Exchanging Our Country Marks by Michael A. Gomez is such a book. Although it relies heavily on secondary sources reinforced by extensive research in runaway slave advertisements in southern newspapers and WPA interviews from the 1930s, Exchanging Our Country Marks is a conceptual tour de force. No brief review can do justice to the nuances and complexities of Gomez's argument. . . . A fully satisfying work that engages the heart as well as the mind.—Southern Cultures

An exemplary contribution to both American and African American history."North Carolina Historical Review

Exchanging Our Country Marks offers a rare and creative inquiry into the origins of African identity in the United States from 1526 to 1830.—Gaither Reporter

By far the most ambitious, thorough, and sophisticated attempt yet made at describing the impact of variations in West African and West Central African cultures upon the societies that later became the United States.—The Journal of American History




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