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Gomez challenges many of the prevailing assumptions about slavery-- for example, that "the new condition of slavery superseded all others" (48)-- and he advances intriguing new speculations about the development of a collective African-American identity.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...
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