- Africans in the Old South: Mapping Exceptional Lives across the Atlantic World by Randy J. Sparks
With so many ships crisscrossing its waters during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Atlantic was a facilitator of change. Its shores were dynamic spaces that produced terrific fortunes for select Europeans and mostly widespread disaster for Amerindian and African peoples. But the Atlantic also enabled stasis. Entrenched wealth in the colonies and multigenerational plantation drudgery were often the end points of long journeys across the globe. Naturally, scholars of the Atlantic world have been drawn more toward its dynamism than its inertia. Randy J. Sparks's ambitious and meticulously researched new book fits soundly in this camp, demonstrating how the Atlantic could transform the lives of its inhabitants.
Tracing the stories of six different groups of Africans, Sparks reveals how varied their identities and experiences could be. The longest two of these "life narratives" follow separate elite mixed-race families (p. 8). In both cases, the English patriarchs, William Cleveland and John Holman, traded slaves along the coasts of modern-day Sierra Leone and Guinea and had children with an African-born woman of color. But their offsprings' lives differed tremendously. Whereas Elizabeth Cleveland moved to South Carolina in 1764 and flourished as a white female planter—though her full ancestry would be revealed posthumously—the Holman children could only ally themselves with free people of color after their relocation to South Carolina. The Cleveland family's story is staggeringly remarkable, and Sparks tells it movingly and with incredible detail to underscore how permeable slave societies could be under the right circumstances. The Holmans, who arrived a generation later than the Clevelands and amid hardened racial lines, hit a stronger barrier across which their identity could not extend. Time was not on their side financially either, as the prohibition of the slave trade in 1808 effectively destroyed their business, pushing some members of the family to return to Africa.
The remaining narratives cover the nineteenth century, as abolitionism reorganized Africa's diasporic routes. Robert Johnson was kidnapped from a Kissi village and brought to Georgia. After running away to freedom in New England, he shared stories about growing up in Africa, as well as the truly horrific abuse of southern slaves, making him a popular speaker among antislavery advocates. Fellow Kissi native Dimmock Charlton also came into the abolitionist orbit, but only after a lengthy freedom suit over the [End Page 406] status of his grandchildren drew the attention and assistance of New York lawyer John Jay, grandson of the Founding Father. The final two stories chronicle Africans illegally enslaved and carried to Alabama. Both chapters conclude with the subjects making their way back to Africa after lengthy legal processes.
What unites these individuals beyond the fact that they hailed from the same continent? As an identity, "African" is virtually meaningless in this period. Were they, instead, "cosmopolitans," "Atlanteans," or—because so much of their lives were limited to the coasts—"littoral-eans"? Sparks is reserved in his conclusions, opting mostly to reinforce the idea that identity was flexible and that there was no single African experience. But this study does serve as an important reminder that Africa and Africans continued to play an important role in the South long after 1808. The more obvious criticism is that of representativeness. Considering the millions of enslaved people, many born in Africa and imprisoned on plantations in the South at the same time, what is to be gained by following these exceptional, peripatetic lives? Sparks engages directly and thoughtfully with this question at the outset, arguing for the importance of individual narrative as a vital alternative to quantitative distancing. Indeed, this book is perfectly poised to start countless graduate and undergraduate discussions on the nature of biography in the black Atlantic, especially in light of recent attempts to correct scholars' supposed impulse of attributing too much agency to their enslaved subjects. Movement and dynamism still dazzle...