Manhood Enslaved: Bondmen in Eighteenth- and Early Nineteenth-Century New Jersey

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Manhood Enslaved: Bondmen in Eighteenth--and Early Nineteenth-Century New Jersey. By Kenneth E. Marshall. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2011. xi + .208 pp. $75.00 hardcover.

In his brief, yet rich, volume Kenneth Marshall takes the reader into the often forgotten and understudied world of revolutionary era northern slavery and of Somerset County, New Jersey in particular. As Marshall notes, the study of early American slavery is made difficult by the paucity of sources. He confronts this challenge by providing the reader in depth analysis and close reading of two relatively obscure narratives: the better known Memoir of Quamino Buccau (1851) by William J. Allinson and less studied The Story of an Old Farm (1889) by Andrew D. Mellick, Jr. Marshall does the hard work of rebuilding a narrative from scant and unreliable sources. His analysis is supported by accounts from contemporary newspapers, personal papers, and other narratives of enslaved life from the period. He also makes considerable use of secondary literature to provide context and draw connections to his original analysis. Marshall's careful reconstruction and corroboration of the events from the narratives provides a compelling argument for how the documents can be useful to historians despite their bias and later authorship.

In confronting these texts, written by white authors with specific political agendas, Marshall reinterprets the portrayal of enslaved life to "unmute" the voices of those held in bondage. Marshall focuses on the lives of three enslaved men: Yombo and Dick Melick, from Mellick's narrative, and Quamino Buccau from Allinson's biography. By recovering the voices and hidden lives of these men, he provides ample evidence of the multiple ways enslaved men expressed their manhood and how protecting their masculinity acted as resistance against the physical and psychological tortures of bondage. As Marshall argues, northern slavery was, "a battlefield where enslaved blacks fought whites for the preservation of their minds and bodies." (139)

Marshall supports recent work by slavery scholars making the case for the cruelty of northern slavery and highlighting the particular oppression of black family life. He, however, pushes this scholarship farther with his expanded understanding of enslaved resistance and manhood. Rather than enslaved masculinity being expressed solely in terms of overt resistance, Marshall argues that manhood was complex that seemingly passive expressions could be powerful forms of resistance. As Marshall writes, "[enslaved men] conceived on manhood in neither monolithic or static terms ... their definitions were necessarily fluid and included elements of power, self-determination, self-respect, self-control, and familial responsibility." (6) In this way Marshall's work connects to that of scholars like James C. Scott and Robin Kelley who have highlighted the hidden transcripts or "infrapolitics" of oppressed people. Marshall successfully argues for the importance of non-oppositional and indirect forms of resistance to enslaved survival and constructions of masculinity.

Marshall structures his chapters thematically, each focusing on a particular aspect of masculinity expressed in his central sources. The first chapter explores the lives and motives of the authors Mellick and Allinson. …