- The River Flows On: Black Resistance, Culture, and Identity Formation in Early America
There is a recent and outstanding literature that analyses cultural connections between Africa and the Americas in the era of slavery.1 This scholarship has been spurred on by the publication of The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: A Database on CD-Rom (1999) which researchers have used to understand the flow of enslaved Africans to the New World with new precision.2 Walter C. Rucker's excellent The River Flows On adds to this historiography by demonstrating that African culture was intertwined with slave resistance in North America. By surveying the main conspiracies and rebellions in Virginia, South Carolina, and New York from the colonial through the antebellum period, Rucker provides a reappraisal of slave resistance that will challenge the field to more fully embrace African cultural survivals.
At its best, Rucker's analysis persuasively highlights African cultural persistence during the most dramatic moments of slave resistance. In part one of the book, which covers the colonial period, his analysis of the 1712 New York rebellion (chapter 1) and the 1741 New York conspiracy (chapter 2) highlights [End Page 442] the activities of Gold Coast Africans. In the 1712 revolt, for instance, slaves maintained Akan names, used conjure to ensure to the success of their plans, operated firearms first learned from trading networks along the Gold Coast, and relied on traditional loyalty oaths to bind participants. In colonial South Carolina (chapter 3), where slave trade data shows that west central Africans were concentrated, Rucker's analysis is less focused on specific revolts and more on routine forms of resistance. Here he probes white fears to show that African culture was continued through traditions such as night drumming, dancing, and poisoning. While part one does not always convey culturally specific cultural transfers to the degree Rucker maintains, he clearly demonstrates that African culture was at the root of much resistance.
The book gets more controversial in the antebellum period (part two). In chapter four, he challenges Douglas Egerton's interpretation that Gabriel Prosser led a working-class rebellion that joined urban artisans and slaves against planters and merchants. Rucker argues that the acculturated figure described by Egerton would have had little appeal in the Virginia countryside where recent arrivals were from the Bight of Biafra. Instead, he argues that Gabriel attracted slaves to the plot because of his skills as a blacksmith, a trade which many West Africans associated with warfare, death, and the spiritual world. In short, while Egerton's Gabriel reads the newspapers of Richmond and was inspired by the ideas of the Age of Revolution, Rucker's Gabriel has his identity rooted in West Africa.
Having marshalled evidence which he says "completely undermines Egerton's view of an interracial class revolt" he then partially sides with his nemesis in his reading of the Denmark Vesey revolt (chapter 5). His reading of the recent controversy over whether the Vesey conspiracy was real or not supports Egerton (and David Robertson and Edward Pearson) against the claims by Michael P. Johnson that the revolt existed only in the minds of Charleston's whites. Rucker argues that there was too much African culture present in the trial transcripts to have been solely created by white observers. A key point for Rucker is the story of a conjurer named Phillip who was apparently born with a "caul" over his face, a piece of skin that for many West Africans symbolized the birth of someone with exceptional foresight. The point for Rucker is that the specificity of such a story suggests that material in the trial records was beyond the invention of Charleston's white community and that therefore the plot must be true. This is problematic, however, because it implies that whites were ignorant of African culture, which Rucker's own evidence on the workings of the slave trade refutes. Rucker is probably right here—that some aspects of African culture were beyond the...