- The Everyday in Black American History
Twenty-seven years ago, William S. McFeely wrote a book that explored the love-hate relationship between black Americans and the federal government that developed after the Civil War. This monograph focused on the career of the first commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau, General O. O. Howard, and his efforts to protect his wards from Andrew Johnson’s and white America’s racism. Howard’s defense of the freedmen, as McFeely shows, was ineffectual. The freed slaves were left to “root hog or die” because all the United States was willing to give them was freedom. In two subsequent biographies, McFeely analyzed the careers of two nineteenth-century giants, Ulysses S. Grant and Frederick Douglass. Both of these studies also dealt with the issues of freedom, the government and race relations, and black agency. What unites McFeely’s work in my opinion is splendid writing, through research, and a sympathy for his subjects. Sapelo’s People shows that these concerns continue to be at the heart of McFeely’s historical interest. In the afterward of his monograph, McFeely situates this book in the context of his previous work.
There are many things that this book is not. It is not a history of Sapelo, and it is not a position paper addressing the problems those living on the island face in relation to those powerful enough to compound or alleviate those problems. And I have not attempted monographs on slavery, war refugees, or Reconstruction. . . . What the book is, if this is not to use too grand a varnish, is a meditation on race. After thirty years of scholarly cogitation and more than fifty of head scratching, I still don’t know what race is. But it is.(171)
[End Page 445]
McFeely’s insightful words about race should be compared to a recent article on this category of ascription by Professor Thomas Holt in the American Historical Review. Holt’s essay obscures more than it reveals, and what it does explicate is both obvious and not new. In this essay, Holt urges American historians of race to pay attention to macro and micro levels of “everydayness.” But the study of “everyday life and everydayness” has been at the center of writing about black American History since the eighteenth century. This tradition of historical analysis is central to many of the most important books written about slavery and emancipation during the last forty years, and McFeely’s Sapelo’s People stands squarely within this school of historiography.
McFeely’s elegantly written narrative centers on his return to Sapelo Island, Georgia, for the 125th anniversary of the First African Baptist Church. If one wants to study the “everydayness” of black life, the church is a good place to begin because it has been a central institution in black life since the eighteenth century. Within black Christianity, a church’s anniversary is an important event that reunites the living with the dead and with God and reaffirms community. McFeely captures this communal sensibility in his description of the church’s anniversary service:
The deacons entering in procession from their room to the side of the preacher’s platform would have been as formal and correct as London bankers, but they were coming into a room eager with gathering parishioners ready to swell into life. And that life is one of a religion that is physical in its reality. The self, the body, is not silenced or constrained, not separate from some piously transfigured spirit. There is no dark hush. People have come to join hands, to participate. From the first antiphonal responses to a deacon’s welcome, with voices swelling with the opening hymn, all is communal. What would formally be termed congregational responses—the progressively more vocal interruptions of the preacher’s prayers and sermon—are, instead, the message itself. These people are in conversation with a Lord who is a member of the family.(117–18)
Who and what are Sapelo and its people? Sapelo is...