Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South by Michael A. Gomez
How did slavery reshape the identity of Africans who were forcibly relocated to and exploited in the American South? How much “African” culture survived the Middle Passage and subsequent cultural pressure from European/American norms? Which culture – American or African – was the primary cultural force in African-American identity before the Civil War? These are just some of the questions Michael Gomez seeks to answer in his provocative book.
Primarily, Gomez argues that until 1830, that is to say through out a majority of the colonial and antebellum period, there was no such thing as a united African-American community. The identity of enslaved Africans and their American born progeny was shaped by their ethnic origin (Igbo, Sierra Leone, Senegambia, etc.) and their faith community (Islam or non-Abrahamic African religions), not any idea of an African “race.” Gradually, this ethnic identity gave way to a pan-ethnic idea of “blackness” that united most enslaved African and African-Americans. As Gomez notes in individual chapters on each ethnic grouping, all of the “source” cultures of enslaved Africans contributed to the new African-American identity that came to dominate the enslaved community after 1830.
Gomez places the agency for this transformation in the hands and minds of enslaved people themselves. Whatever African-Americans appropriated from the white European and American culture they did so on their own terms, for their own purposes, and through the lens of their African culture (or cultural inheritance from Africa in the case of American born enslaved persons). This argument contrasts with scholars like Eugene Genovese, who argued that white planter cultural and economic hegemony overwhelmed enslaved persons and placed the primary agency of cultural African-American development on that white hegemony.
As for how the change between an ethnic to racial African identity actually developed, Gomez has four related mechanisms: demography, population clustering, the actual experience of slavery, and cultural practices like the ring shout. Traditionally, historians have noted how, when compared to slave societies like Brazil or the West Indies, enslaved persons in the American South were diffused and had high proximity to whites. Gomez turns this insight on its head and notes that despite being more diffused and having a greater exposure to whites than in other slave societies, within the actual American context populations of enslaved persons in the South were still clustered together and most Africans were still more likely to be exposed to their fellow slaves than whites. This allowed the creation of separate African culture in America, apart from white hegemony. Gomez also notes that the shared suffering, hardship, white prejudice and the work of slavery helped wear down ethnic divisions and create a idea of a united African “race” opposed to a white “race.” Cultural practices that Africans brought over with them from Africa such as the ring shout but other rituals, like funeral rites and water immersion, proved adaptable and were capable of incorporating elements of white European/American culture (read: Christianity). It is important to note here that Gomez stresses that despite adaptation to their new context, the primary cultural force remained African. Finally, demography helped reshape African identity in America , for by the middle of the nineteenth century, with the end of the legal slave trade by 1830 there were very few actual Africans in the enslaved population and thus a direct connection to specific African cultures began to fade away and be replaced by a general sense of “Africaness.”
The last central point of Gomez’s book relates to the race based African-American identity that rose to dominance after 1830. Gomez argues that this identity broke along two class lines. The largest group – the large rural “folk” majority of enslaved persons – saw themselves primarily as African-Americans and sought to create an identity that stayed true to its African roots. The second class, the “elite”, which consisted mostly of the privileged “servile” house servants and skilled enslaved laborers and urban free blacks who saw themselves primarily as African-Americans and sought integrate themselves into white society and to distance themselves from their African roots. Shades of Martin and Malcolm abound in this final point of Gomez’s provocative book.
Gomez’s book has a few weaknesses. First and foremost is the very blurry chronology in many of Gomez’s arguments. While he sometimes argues chronology is important, Gomez often only honors this insight in the breach. It is hard sometimes to trace what is a product of the colonial period, the antebellum period, the Gilded Age, Jim Crow, or modern African-American identity politics. Gomez also, perhaps, isn’t as critical with his use of WPA and Gilded Age/early twentieth century slave recollections as he could be. Gomez goes back and forth in reading these sources critically to somewhat taking what they say at face value. It would be easily fully accept some of Gomez’s controversial insights drawn from this accounts if he had a more consistent policy towards those difficult sources. That said, Gomez’s arguments are largely convincing and it is difficult to argue with the macanisms he insights for the transformation of African identity in the American South
TIE INS: Gomez’s book works well with Bernard Bailyn’s Atlantic History. The evidence presented by Gomez shows by the horrors and the creative possibilities that the Atlantic world was capable of producing. The African-American identity Gomez examines is truly an “Atlantic” one, in that it drew up the cultures of three continents – Africa, European, and North America. Gomez’s book also serves as a good counter point to Jon Bulter’s Becoming America, in that for African-Americans there was nothing particular “American” about their identity before 1776.