Becoming African in America: Race and Nation in the Early Black Atlantic

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Becoming African in America: Race and Nation in the Early Black Atlantic. By James Sidbury. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. vii + 291 pp. $29.95 hardcover; $19.95 paper.

James Sidbury's Becoming African in America explores the articulation of an African identity in the black Atlantic from the 1770s to the 1820s. This discourse on Africa, he argues, "was the most important language in early black American religious and political activism" (15). Sidbury posits two categories of black discourse about Africa--filiative and affiliative narratives. The former was based on ties of blood kinship, while the latter rested on a shared history of oppression. These categories were not mutually exclusive, as authors employed both tropes in their discussions of Africa, and both served as the foundation for modern Black Nationalism.

Sidbury begins his story by examining the work of the two earliest black writers to claim an African identity in the public sphere--Ignatius Sancho and Phyllis Wheatley. Both Sancho and Wheatley articulated affiliative notions of African identity. Neither could remember a childhood in Africa, but both spoke to the struggles of blacks throughout the Diaspora. Sancho's identification with Africa was a part of his enlightened cosmopolitanism, while Wheatley's "strong feelings for members of her 'African' nation existed within the context of her belief in the kinship of all believers through Christ" (33). Both Wheatley and Sancho wrote primarily in the 1770s, and in the 1780s texts of Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano, "a story of literal kinship among 'Africans' took its place beside the affiliative picture of African unity found in the works of Sancho and Wheatley" (40). Both Cugoano and Equiano could remember their pasts in Africa, and their writings espoused filiative narratives of African unity that stretched back to a biblical past. John Marrant's 1789 sermon to the African Masonic Lodge likewise used biblical tropes that would recur in black abolitionists fight against slavery and racism.

While individual writers were key to the articulation of an African identity, Sidbury argues that the prevalence of "African" organizations such as churches, lodges, and benevolent societies "undercuts any suspicion that discussions of African identity at the turn of the nineteenth century were the province of a small cadre of literary figures" (68). This insight reveals one of the key strengths of the book, namely Sidbury's combination of intellectual and sociocultural history to convincingly demonstrate that "ordinary" blacks who participated in organizations such as the African Union Society of Newport, Rhode Island or who emigrated from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone were key contributors to the discourse on Africa.

Although blacks around the Atlantic World had varied conceptions about Africa, some key themes are prevalent throughout their discussions. …