Stefan M. Wheelock
University of Virginia Press
232Pages; Print, $29.50
Stefan M. Wheelock’s Barbaric Culture and Black Critique examines Afro-British and African American authors of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Treated at length are Ottobah Cugoano, Olaudah Equiano, David Walker, and Maria Stewart, while Phillis Wheatley, James Albert Gronniosaw, and others are discussed briefly.
The thesis of Wheelock’s book is that early black Anglophone authors perceived that in the age of democratic revolutions slavery and freedom had been chained together in such a way that the Atlantic slave system threatened to undermine not only freedom (black and white) but also the political and religious values underwriting personal and economic liberty. Ironically, liberty nourished slavery. Debates about whether Equiano was abolitionist notwithstanding, the authors treated argued powerfully against continuance of the slave trade or slavery as well as for dignity and security for English and American blacks. We could characterize them as post-slavery and greater-than-antislavery thinkers. They appear moreover as religious thinkers in Barbaric Culture and Black Critique. Religion was central to Afro-British and African American thought about slavery and freedom. Sacralized freedom was valued in evangelical Calvinism and in early versions of free-will Protestantism, while slavery undermined virtue, benevolence, and true religion. Critics of the Atlantic slave system, black authors were jeremiahs, prophesying corruption of religion and evaporation of free society were the slave trade and slavery to persist. Wheelock’s understanding of this critique leads to phrasing such as “slaveholding perversions of civilization and progress,” “slaveholding savagery shadowed progress,” “the advanced civilizations of the North Atlantic quarter [transformed] into culturally sanctioned contexts of commercial decadence,” “a seemingly wayward turn in modern Atlantic practices of reason, culture, politics, and ideology,” and “race slavery brought the supposed superior cultures of the white Atlantic dangerously close to becoming ‘apostate,’ ‘reprobate,’ and nearly apocalyptic in their anti-Christian cultural practices.”
Although Wheelock mentions the early twenty-first century only momentarily, he implies that such perversion and savagery remain among the conditions of our lives. The Black Lives Matter movement is invoked in the book, and this review is being written in late Summer 2016 after an uprising in Milwaukee, a municipality with low public investment in the lives of its black citizens, most extreme race-based segregation, and a high percentage of black men who have been incarcerated. The essential logic that Wheelock identifies in the Atlantic prevails: those who police black lives validate the conditions that push blacks, particularly young men, into policing’s crosshairs. This review is also being written a few miles from Lake Michigan, the greatest of the Great Lakes for African American history and culture, the center of a region where black lives could have mattered as a legacy to Bronzeville, Idlewild, and Paradise Valley. We could still claim that legacy, but not easily.
These serious arguments deserve response, but an outline of Wheelock’s views of the major figures he studies should be first. Writing in 1787, Cugoano was among the first to declare that Atlantic slavery had pressed so hard on Christian theology as to warp it into apostasy. This “historical regression of British policies from God’s divine imperatives resulted in the emergence of an especially brutal form of commercial logic,” Wheelock writes. Damage to black peoples and Christian theology was severe. Cugoano favored not only a truer theology but also its exportation to West Africa through evangelism and legitimate trade (as opposed to the illegitimate trade in slaves). Equiano emerged in 1789 as an ironic commentator on slavery and freedom. As he gained and exercised his own liberty, he cast unfreedom as the bedrock of the Atlantic economy. For instance, when he described his certificate of manumission, Wheelock argues, his “remarks about emancipation suggest[ed] the extent to which colonial morality and sensibility contort the language of liberty.” In 1829–1830, Walker recognized that racism (related to slavery but not identical to it) had corrupted even ancient biblical concepts, such as...