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“Exchanging Our Country Marks” by Michael Gomez Essay

In Exchanging Our Country Marks, Michael Gomez brings together various strands of the historical record in a stunning fusion that points the way to a definitive history of American Slavery. In this fusion of history, anthropology, and sociology, Gomez has made expert use of primary sources, including newspapers ads for runaway slaves in colonial America. Slave runaway accounts from newspapers are combined with personal diaries, church records, and former slave narratives to provide a firsthand account of the African and African-American experiences during the eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries. With this mastery of sources, Gomez challenges many of the prevailing assumptions about slavery– for example, that “the new condition of slavery superseded all others” (48)– and he advances intriguing new speculations about the development of a collective African-American identity. In Gomez’s words: “It is a study of their efforts to move from ethnicity to race as a basis for such an identity, a movement best understood when the impact of both internal and external forces upon social relations within this community is examined”(4).

According to Gomez this identity emerged out of a mixture of African identities. Throughout his study Gomez illustrates how Africans transferred their unique culture and heritage to the New World. He uncovers the harshness of the Middle Passage, and describes how some enslaved Africans attempted suicide, some successfully. Africans did not embrace the institution of slavery, and many chose to run away. The millions of Africans brought to America would not have thought of themselves as African; they were Asante, Yoruba, or Igbo, their lives and characters defined by village or nation. Gomez devoted a chapter to Muslims that had a religious identity connecting them to Arabia and Palestine rather than their native land. The Muslims brought with them a different idea about themselves and their world. As Gomez noted, the societies of West Africa also had their own histories. These the societies changed during the four centuries of the slave trade operation. Slave traders arrived at a particular point in their history. There arrival influenced their history; it did not create it. Gomez provides an understanding of what happened in West Africa before, during, and after the slave trade.

Gomez opens his book with Denmark Vesey’s 1822 “experiment” in building a multi-ethnic community displaced Africans in Charleston, South Carolina. Vesey tried to replace ethnic diversity of African peoples with a united movement of Africans in America based on the Bible. “We must unite together as the Santo Domingo people did”, Vesey told his followers, who nonetheless still organized themselves by ethnicity, with an Igbo column and Gullah column (3). Vesey’s uprising failed, but not his experiment. The African peoples came to define themselves along racial, rather than ethnic lines, though they would continue to transmit stories of their own ethnic cultures to their children. Just as Europeans immigrants came out of specific historical and social contexts, the Africans had individual social, religious, and historical identities. Gomez encourages a re-examination of African-American history by suggesting how different communities of Africans responded and transferred their unique culture and heritage to the New World and also shows how particular African societies and cultures continue to shape our society.

For example, the Kissi of Sierre Leone lived in rural villages, with out a strong governing state. They formed secret associations that acted as loose governing forces over their dispersed rural settlements. In their society women were autonomous, performing most of the society’s agricultural work. The Kissi came to America with no desire for political power. The Akan, on the other hand, had a highly organized political society. For centuries, they had dominated the gold and kola nut trades. After being conquered by the Asante in the eighteenth century the Akan succumbed to the slave trade, entering America not only experienced with centralized power but also politically insecure after the long-standing Asante threat. Members of the Kissi and Akan came to America with profoundly different outlooks on life.

Gomez examines both the African communities from which these people came and the specific places in North America to which they were taken. The ethnicity of Africans brought to Virginia, to South Carolina, or to Louisiana shaped the African American communities on those areas much more than did the nature of their work or other factors. The Bambara and Malinke people from the Senegambia region who were transported to colonial South Carolina and French Louisiana brought with them their technological skill in growing rice. The first slave ships to reach Louisiana, in 1719, brought both African slaves and African rice seeds. By the end of the century, however a greater proportion of African brought to Louisiana were Yoruba, Fon, or Ewe. These people Gomez argues, synthesized the complex Yoruba region into “hoodoo,” which Gomez neither romanticizes nor belittles.

Besides ethnicity and race, Africans religion had a significant impact on African American culture and survived the psychological intrusion of American Christianity. Gomez is convincing in his accounts of Islam and Christianity. Islam, Gomez suggests, “may have influenced African -American culture in ways herefore unimagined” (82). Gomez’s goal is to find out how these different peoples and societies influenced their world. Muslims brought to America carried a feeling of cultural supremacy and a connection with the wider world- a mixed identity that separated them from other Africans. But this separation from other Africans, which amounted to a transcendence of ethnic category, allowed the Muslims to develop bonds of community with other Africans more easily than Africans who still identified with their own ethnic cultures. Gomez argues that Muslims were more apt to enter Georgia, South Carolina, and Louisiana than the Chesapeake, perhaps numbering in the thousands.

Muslims, Gomez argues, also made significant efforts to practice and preserve their religion. Evidence for this claim includes praying beads found in slave cabins, the construction of churches facing east, and names found in runaway ads and slave registers. Gomez explains how the ring shout and the relationship of water baptism were important African elements that survived in the black church. For example the “shout was an indication of social rank and ancestral identification”(270), and “baptism was a means by which the community grew closer,” whether “salt water or county born”(273). Both were “important vehicles in both conversion and movement towards reconceptualization, resistance and defiance”(274).

The ring shout was not simply a transitional tool for creating racial identity. For Igbo, the ring shout had a particular social purpose, that is, to preserve community identity. Gomez relates the tendency of Igbo slaves in America to commit suicide with folklore about flying back to Africa, or disappearing. The ring ceremony in Aliica was a way to solidify community identity and to bring the living into communion with ancestors. The Igbo in America simply adapted it to their new setting.

As the nineteenth century progressed blacks embraced Christianity but the “liturgy was Africanized”(279). Also, blacks preferred the Baptist denomination because it was decentralized and democratic. Just as some Africans would use the ring shout as a metaphysical return to the homeland and others as a means to forge a new community in America, Africans and African -Americans had different recollections of the slave trade that had caused their dislocation. Gomez analyzes two sets of traditions. In one set, Africans were tricked onto slave ships by Europeans offering them red cloth. But in another tale, King Buzzard, an African king, was condemned to travel alone through the world as a buzzard for betraying his own and other people into slavery. The significance of this tale for Gomez’s argument lies in its transformation of historical fact. When Africans enslaved other Africans, they did not view themselves as betraying their own people. They would have regarded themselves as Aro or Asante or Wolof selling Igbo or Akan or Manlike. Folktales like the one about King Buzzard, created in America to explain the origins of African slaves, gave to these different people a common origin on the distant continent.

The Africans’ change from the self-awareness of ethnicity to that of race emerged from a common servitude, white attitudes, and “an internal dialogue”(242). Association and location figured importantly as blacks in the Deep South, living in close proximity to one another, resisted creolization, in contrast to Upper South blacks, a minority in close proximity to a white majority. Conversion to Christianity, a slow process, was helped along by incorporating familiar African practices such as the ring shout, water baptism, and funeral rites. Conversion, however, separated converts form the unconverted. By 1830, when Gomez concludes his book, African-Americans were divided by rival visions, one a future partnership in North America, the other a past “as close to the bosom of Africa as they could get”(292).

This book contains numerous firsthand accounts detailing the social transformation of African-American culture in the New World. Gomez’s argument is convincing; he succeeds in uncovering how ethnicity and race affected the African American community in the colonial and antebellum South. His work is carefully organized, with many landmarks for the reader. Exchanging Our Country Marks is well balanced and written; it is a significant contribution to the African experience in American.

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