Reading between the Lines: Black Folklore and Literature in the Understanding of 18th Century Life in the African Diaspora; A Book Review Essay

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Reading Between the Lines: Black Folklore and Literature in the Understanding of 18th Century Life in the African Diaspora; A Book Review Essay

William L. Andrews, To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760 - 1865 Urbana and Chicago (IL): University of Illinois Press, 1986. Pp. 111 + 353.

William D. Piersen, Black Yankees: The Development of an Afro-American Subculture in Eighteenth-Century New England Amherst (MA): University of Massachusetts Press, 1988. Pp. iv + 223.

Keith A. Sandiford, Measuring the Moment: Strategies of Protest in Eighteenth Century Afro-English Writing Selinsgrove (PA): Susquehanna University Press, 1988. Pp. 181.

In his introduction to Black Yankees, William D. Piersen writes, "For too long the black men and women of history have been encased in the passive voice of what was done to them, while their own vision of their lives remained hidden." (p. x) In this he is right, but in a year when many departments of African American Studies are celebrating their 20th anniversary it may be appropriate to observe that for too long Afro-Americans were said not to have a history at all. A quarter of a century ago many historians seriously argued there could be no history of black peoples, because blacks had left no written records, no primary sources on which scholars might draw in their attempts to understand the black past. Some conceded it might be possible for anthropologists, sociologists and other social scientists to study Africans and those in the African diaspora as their techniques were different from the historian. The new social history, insofar as it relied on the theoretical assumptions and methodological strategies of the social sciences might, some historians grudgingly admitted, provide some insight into African and Afro-American history, but as black peoples were too ignorant or too oppressed to set down their ideas on paper, their past would forever remain unknown and unknowable.

But with the study of blacks legitimated by black studies departments at America's major universities, and with the long standing work of the historically black colleges finally winning the attention it deserved, historians discovered blacks had written a great deal indeed. As an embarrassment of riches surfaced for those interested in black nineteenth and twentieth century history some historians retreated back on the further side of 1800 insisting that this era of the black past could not be known, or if so could be known only through the eyes of white folk. Written materials by blacks were rare they insisted, unprepared for the contributions soon to be made by archaeologists, folklorists, and literary scholars to our understanding of black peoples in the 1700s. The eighteenth century, many historians now agree, was a crucial one in the history of blacks in diaspora. Europeans entered the century thinking of themselves as Catholics, Spaniards, Englishmen, Protestants, and such, and while these categories of thought remained important at the beginning of the nineteenth century they had also come to think of themselves as white. Similarly, Africans who had regarded themselves as Ashanti, Ibo, Muslim, or such, came especially in the New World to think of themselves as black. To understand these transformations of consciousness over the course of the 1700s it is necessary to examine not just the ideas of whites but of those of blacks as well.

The three works reviewed here provide considerable insight into the experience of Africa's scattered children in a crucial century. Their authors explore different problems, but their conclusions complement and reinforce one another. Each of these books clearly spells out its central concern, and delivers what it promises. None of the books is narrowly conceived, and while all are focused and disciplined, each author is mindful of the larger context in which his work is situated and able to construct meaningful linkages between his research and other studies of the eighteenth century. …