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Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery by Heather Andrea Williams (review)

From: Civil War History
Volume 60, Number 1, March 2014
pp. 92-93 | 10.1353/cwh.2014.0009

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Writing history always involves interpreting ambiguous, unreliable, or partial evidence. In the historiography of slavery, evidentiary problems are especially acute. Left with a fragmentary record in slaves' own words, must we resign ourselves to major gaps in our knowledge of their experiences? Heather Andrea Williams decisively asserts that we need not. Her new book undertakes a study of slaves' "interior lives" (3). Even if those inner lives can be known only imperfectly, there is no reason to leave them unexplored; otherwise, we would have to count their obliteration as one of the institution's enduring evils.

Some readers may be skeptical of a project that necessarily entails some conjecture, but only a churlish reader would not be reassured by Williams's careful analysis, palpable sense of responsibility to her material, and self-awareness as a scholar. "Writing about emotions can be daunting," she admits in her introduction. "As I work with the sources, I feel around in the world of feelings, trying to get an accurate sense of what these people's experiences were like. . . . I interpret their expressions of feeling, but I do not attempt to psychoanalyze these people from the past" (3).

The feelings Williams seeks to recover are those of African Americans whose families were separated during slavery and who, during the upheavals of the Civil War and emancipation, tried to find their lost kin. Each of the book's three parts is devoted to a phase of this epic, traumatic experience. The decreasing lengths of these parts—there are three chapters devoted to "Separation," two to "The Search," and one to "Reunification"—reflects diminishing hopes. Not all searches were successful, and the reunions were vastly fewer than the separations.

Some material in the first section will be familiar to readers versed in slave narratives and the history of slavery, but at every turn Williams offers fresh analysis of little-known sources. The chapter titled "Separation of Husbands and Wives" draws on the Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, but also on a remarkable set of unpublished letters. When nearly a hundred people enslaved by Richard Brownrigg were removed from North Carolina to Mississippi in 1835, they sent messages back to family members who remained on the old plantation. The letters document the displaced slaves' growing sense of loss and fading hopes as they walked across the interior, watching Brownrigg's shifting fortunes imperil the prospect that all would be reunited in Mississippi. A chapter called "White Attitudes toward Separation" covers similar ground as other work on the domestic slave trade, especially Walter Johnson's Soul by Soul, but it also uses the diary of Thomas Chaplin, a South Carolina slaveholder, to offer an extended, eye-opening account of those who divided slave families. Williams's keen approach to her documents is exemplified by a deft close reading of an 1845 page from this diary. "In the space of a few lines Chaplin's thoughts raced from one priority to another," and through those racing thoughts Williams tracks the internal contortions of a man who could (stunningly) blame his white friends for consuming his extravagant hospitality, wrecking his finances, and forcing him to sell ten "faithful Negroes" away from their families (93, 95).

As the book enters the Civil War years, its story shifts from tragic to bittersweet. Searches for long-lost relatives—which Williams reconstructs from slave narratives, rare letters to former owners, and most of all from "Information Wanted" ads in black newspapers—highlight freed people's resilience, the endurance of their emotional bonds, and their optimism at the dawn of Reconstruction. Moses Sisseney hoped pastors would read out to their congregations the notice he sent the Christian Recorder in 1870. It sought information about his mother and five siblings, none of whom he had seen in more than thirty years. But the preponderance of "Information Wanted" ads, next to the scant evidence of reunifications, dramatizes the near-impossibility of rejoining what slavery had severed. Hundreds of the ads were placed (Williams quotes three dozen in full), and many offer no more clues than a state to which someone was sold and a name that probably had since changed. Williams argues in...

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