Roots of Resistance: Two Accounts of Africanity in Diaspora

S. T. Livingston, Ph.D.

“…Douglass returned to the Covey farm early on the Sunday, buoyed gingerly by the promise of Sandy’s (R)oot Magic.”[1]

Histories of African identity and resistance are numerous and wrought with varying interpretations of the meaning and nature of that identity in Diaspora. This is a brief post sharing thoughts on a disparate pair of them: Randy J. Sparks’ Africans in the Old South: Mapping Exceptional Lives across the Atlantic World. (Harvard, 2016) and Nicholas Johnson’s Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms. (Prometheus, 2014). While imageJohnson’s work is clearly not, directly, about African diasporic identity, this yeoman’s text clarifies much about the roots and workings of African identity in North America and what measures were taken by those blessed with the mantle of Blackness to defend their persons and personhood. Johnson’s populist historiography and Sparks’ emphasis on exceptionalism proffers the idea that the too-seldom discussed life-narratives of those figures like Jarena Lee, Mariah Stewart, Hosea Easton, Moses Dickson and the under-acknowledged, Ida B. Wells-Barnett hold profound truths about the origins and functionality of Africanity as an identity that affirmed and defended Blackness as phenotype, and as forms of historical and cultural agency. We can see into Johnson’s chronotrope of the gun, the intelligence and consciousness that determined to defend its integrity at all costs against the worst provisions of America’s racist social contract. And in telling the story of Negroes and the Gun, we learn much more about the esteem in which Africanity was held than about martial fascination.

Sparks’ Africans in the Old South is of interest as it pushes past perceived generalizations on either side of the African-centered and Black Atlantic family feud on African identity. As he notes, surely, Ira Berlin’s “Charter generations” concept deserves round excoriation for imag0539_1.jpgits mestizaje ethnocentrism and sheer willingness to ignore sources on Black African agency and its role in forming the African diaspora.[2] Sparks criticizes Berlin’s racial generalization used to promulgate a creole-centered concept, but does not see the diminution of African agency, (if not outright ‘attack’ on it in Stuckey’s eyes), as a major problem in his pursuit of establishing individual life narratives and individualist biographies of his Atlantic Creole Africans. In Sparks’ usage, “African” bears little to no epistemological power to denote cultural identity, it merely indicates “individuals born anywhere on that continent, not as a cultural identifier.”[3] For Africana Studies scholars, this aspect of the book’s framework deserves critical review. As Stuckey noted of Berlin’s Generations in Captivity: A History of African American Slaves,

Berlin takes a concept originally meant for linguistic purposes, creolization, and applies it to culture as a whole. It is not only the stretching of the term beyond its original limits that concerns us, but the degrading stain that it carries… creolization has been “extended to animals, things, and processes: ‘sugar cane, rats, styles of cooking, among other things.” The inclusion of the term “rats” does not greatly disturb Berlin, who makes creolization a theoretical foundation of his book, conceding merely that “the term is thus mined with difficulties…”[4]

Despite the book’s title, Sparks is not overtly committed to the goal of ensuring African agency, pursuing instead an ambiguous ‘reframing’ of African identity through biographical takes on individual life narratives. For example, the author notes that one of the protagonists, Robert Johnson, an enslaved Kissi man who was sold into Georgia and moved to Rhode island with his master would later join the African Baptist church in Boston after manumission upon his master’s death. While Sparks acknowledges that some “Historians have seen these institutions (e.g., churches), and their use of the term “African” in their titles, as evidence of an emerging African corporate identity,” he does not say that he counts himself in that group. This claim should not be a difficult task given,

“Johnson’s position as an officer in that church is important evidence of his conversion to Christianity and his own identification with an “African” identity that was more inclusive than his ethnic identity as a Kissi native.”[5]

Through his use of primary sourcing, while disavowing any direct claim of an African-centered perspective, his individualist framework for telling the stories of the enslaved Africans—Robert Johnson, Dimmock Charlton—and biracial imag0538_1.jpgenslavers—Elizabeth Cleveland Hardcastle, her niece, Catherine Cleveland, John Holman and the Holman slave trading family—brings these figures’ lives into sharp relief, while achieving his aim of a more seamless integration of individual life narratives in dialog with context. Africans in the Old South is a worthwhile read as it contributes to agency-oriented historiographies of the African diaspora and models the rising importance of cultural and historical cartography in Africana Studies and the digital humanities. One only wishes that a scholar modeling African-agency in his research would not feel the need to disavow African-centeredness as a proper intellectual value in the pursuit of telling these too-seldom told life stories.


Notes

[1] Nicholas Johnson’s Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms. (Prometheus, 2014),

[2] A thorough critique of Berlin’s “Charter Generations is P. Sterling Stuckey’s “Reflections on the Scholarship of African Origins and Influence in American Slavery,” The Journal of African American History, Vol. 91, No. 4 P. Sterling Stuckey: In Praise of an Intellectual Legacy (Autumn 2006), pp. 425-443. (Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20064125).

[3] Randy J. Sparks’ Africans in the Old South: Mapping Exceptional Lives across the Atlantic World. (Harvard, 2016), p. 8.

[4] Stuckey, “Reflections,” p. 428.

[5] Sparks’ Africans in the Old South, p. 94.

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