"I, Too, Am America": Archaeological Studies of African-American Life

Article excerpt

"I, Too, Am America": Archaeological Studies of African-American Life. Edited by Theresa A. Singleton. (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, c. 1999. Pp. xiv, 368. Paper, $19.50, ISBN 0-8139-1843-X; cloth, $59.50, ISBN 0-8139-1842-1.)

The fifteen essays in this volume represent the latest theoretical and methodological approaches to the historical archaeology of African Americans. The opening premise of the book is that one "cannot fully understand the European colonial experience in the Americas without understanding that of the African" (p. 1). Major themes of the collection include the relationship between material culture and cultural identity; the role of African heritage in African-American culture; the nature of and power struggles over cultural transformation; and the role of racism, not only in the creation of the material record, but also in the study and practice of African American archaeology. Together, the essays emphasize the complexity of colonial race, class, and gender relations and the fluidity of the cultural and political alliances that defined colonial identities. This volume will be stimulating and valuable for both archaeologists and historians of the African American experience.

The collection begins in the right place--Africa. Merrick Posnansky's and Christopher DeCorse's essays demonstrate the importance of understanding the archaeology from West and Central Africa, where the millions of Africans brought to the Americas originated. Their essays reflect a new and necessary priority in the field, that "African-American archaeology should be rooted in the study of African archaeology and ethnology" (p. 21). Historians and archaeologists have long sought examples of Africanisms in American slave societies. Posnansky and DeCorse effectively argue that American scholars cannot know what they seek without knowing more about the temporal and geographic specifics of African culture.

As most African American archaeology has done, the majority of the subsequent essays focus on plantation archaeology. These essays describe cultural transformation as an "active rather than a passive response to the social, historical, and environmental conditions that gave rise to African American communities" (p. 13). James Deetz, Matthew Emerson, Daniel Mouer, and Leland Ferguson engage one another in an older debate over the manufacture, decoration, meaning, and use of colonoware and early Chesapeake clay pipes. Together these scholars attempt to understand the ways in which ethnicity and African heritage are reflected in the archaeological record. They also demonstrate how difficult it can be to assign "ownership" to any one ethnic group in a creole society like seventeenth-century Virginia.

Terrence Epperson, Douglas Armstrong, Larry McKee, and Barbara Heath analyze relations of power, domination, and resistance in their essays. Epperson investigates the social construction of racial difference in the plantation landscape and finds that both whites and blacks attempted to manipulate plantation space. …