Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Globalization, Creolization, and the Not-So-Peculiar Institution

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Globalization, Creolization, and the Not-So-Peculiar Institution

Article excerpt

IT HAS BECOME A CLICHE TO PROCLAIM THE NEED TO INTERNATIONALIZE the study of the United States. Well-funded conferences, special issues of prestigious journals, and countless panels at professional meetings have been devoted to discussions of how to overcome the self-perceived provincialism of American historians. I have joined in the parade of historians who have participated in these events. Like most academic fashions, this one is a response, at least in large part, to perceived shifts in the world in which we live--in this case to demographic, political, cultural, and economic transformations that come together under the rubric of globalization. Also like most academic fads, this one has inspired some scholars to do wonderful work, explicating, for example, the way a single crop and its markets can link people's fates across regions, nations, and continents or the way that innovations in journalistic practices helped create a "smaller" world. (1) This trend has also inspired its share of flashy but superficial scholarship that disguises old ideas by giving them new labels.

Historians of slavery and historians of colonial British America can, perhaps, be forgiven for wondering what the globalizing fuss is all about. Through no particular virtues or insights of their own, they have long had to address many questions through transnational approaches. That is in part because scholars of colonial British America are inherently pulled into two distinct national historiographies--that of Great Britain and that of the United States. Scholars of slavery have found themselves in an analogous position as they have attempted to conceptualize the relationships between Old World heritages and New World realities. Atlantic approaches to the history of slavery in the Americas reach back to W. E. B. Du Bois, C. L. R. James, Melville J. Herskovits, and Eric Williams, so it is hardly surprising that the first formal program in Atlantic history and culture at an American university emerged during the 1970s out of the collaboration of historical anthropologists of Afro-Caribbean experiences and historians of the early modern societies that bordered the Atlantic. (2) By the 1970s, then, historians of slavery in colonial British America were being pushed by intellectual traditions and institutional forces to understand the institution of slavery and the experiences of those victimized by it in transnational contexts that included Africa, Europe, and non-English speaking societies in the Americas. If, as a result, the rage for globalizing perspectives did not hit them with the same force that it hit other practitioners of U.S. history, it has nonetheless helped foster important, though subtler, shifts in the field.

As it happens, this can be traced with unusual chronological precision, because of a coincidence in timing. Almost ten years ago Philip D. Morgan published Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry, and Ira Berlin published Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Each book represents the culmination of over twenty years of work by one of the most respected historians of American slavery. Both are constructed around questions rooted in the historiography of the United States, and both build on the preceding decade's enormous flowering of local studies of slavery in colonial North America. Both books work within the main currents of the field that their authors had helped to shape by taking Atlantic approaches to colonial slavery. Together they all but swept the major professional book prizes in American history in 1998, and together they can be understood to have brought to fruition a generation of scholarship on slavery in colonial North America. (3)

Many Thousands Gone is a synthetic work that seeks to bring interpretive order to the mass of information about colonial slavery that had accumulated from the mid-1970s--when books by Peter H. …

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