- Barbaric Culture and Black Critique: Black Antislavery Writers, Religion, and the Slaveholding Atlantic by Stefan M. Wheelock
In the field of early Atlantic studies, Stefan Wheelock identifies a scholarly absence due to a dependency that embraced an “elite, white antislavery version of progress” (x). Rightly so, Wheelock focuses on the “charter generation” of black antislavery intellectuals: Ottobah Cugoano, Olaudah Equiano, James Albert Gronniosaw, David Walker, and Maria Stewart. Despite the recent proliferation of early Black Atlantic studies that engage a polycentric approach to the literature, beyond the usual antislavery notables, this study offers a corrective by privileging solely writers who contributed to American Revolution−era intellectual historiography. Wheelock does not mince his words in trumpeting their heuristic rhetoric, which addressed the emergence of a barbaric slaveholding culture that endorsed “commercial decadence” (1). The designated black writers deploy explicit representations to critique race slavery and to characterize “how slaveholding warped Anglo cultural practices of civility” (8). Wheelock’s major concern is that his authorial assemblage of black antislavery intellectuals appears to be arbitrary, lacking a “seamless historical arc” (4). However, this grouping suits his argument that opposes heroic vindicationism—an “emphasis on the heroism of black antislavery texts” (16)—by venturing beyond identity politics and political ideology. Unfortunately, in doing so, Wheelock scapegoats the rise of the multidisciplinary African American studies programs and the “generation of scholars” they wrought (17). This hermeneutic direction portends an unnecessary move in order to advance Wheelock’s own otherwise impressive discursive analysis.
The first chapter presents Ottobah Cugoano, who criticized modern Atlantic barbarism and the decay of “ethical religion” (25). Wheelock positions Cugoano as foremost in decrying slaveholders’ attempt to justify race slavery as an economic initiative by situating it as God’s sacred purpose. Eighteenth-century author Edward Long, considered a preeminent historian, published the History of Jamaica in 1774, which Wheelock labels “a decidedly bold proslavery manifesto” that inaugurates the tone for vitriolic racism (37). Long regarded enslaved Africans as subhuman based on skin [End Page 246] pigmentation. Wheelock demonstrates how Cugoano essentially destabilized an argument that emphasizes black skin as evidence of God’s damnation through the use of inversion, resulting in the slaveholders becoming the “historical heirs to God’s damnation” (40). Wheelock recognizes that although Cugoano could not transcend the racial demarcations of his historical moment, ultimately, Cugoano undertook the strategy of equating commercial slavery with barbarism that signifies the descent of European civilization into savagery, and then issued a call for its immediate abolition. Although Cuguano was able to sustain this novel abolitionist argument, Wheelock concedes another of his proposals—the civilizing of Africa—to be problematic but also, with alterity, capable of conveying “the promise of a higher religious sensibility” (57). This chapter’s interrogation of a little-known African natural rights philosopher, indeed, introduces the advent of black intellectual history.
Chapter 2 offers a complex reading of Atlantic barbarism via the memoirs of the more renowned black abolitionists Gronniosaw and Equiano. The author does not proffer a comparative analysis of the two narrators but utilizes them to express a broader, more nuanced consideration of slavery “as a redemptive enterprise for blacks” (59). Wheelock speaks to the role of cultural catechism in this indoctrination and how the enslaved processed Christian theology differently than in the intentionality and design of their European missionaries and masters. They were more adept than their “polemical counterparts” in granting themselves agency to manipulate their conversion narratives of the “fortunate fall” into a rhetoric that relied on religious motifs to undermine the institutionalization of slavery (67). Accordingly, the author contextualizes Gronniosaw’s narrative account as a “Black Pilgrim’s Progress,” journeying less allegorically and more realistically to a fall into the tragic world of enslavement and, postemancipation, a life of pilgrimage as an impoverished exile. Then, Wheelock investigates Equiano’s body of writings, including letters, memoir, and other communications, which reveal “the cultural perversions of slavery” (84). The author further delineates the British political writings concurrent with Equiano’s abolitionist awakening and his developing ideology...