Wilder, Craig S. in the Company of Black Men: The African Influence on African American Culture in New York City

Article excerpt

New York and London: New York University Press, 2001. Pp. 332. illustrations, tables, notes, bibliography, index.

Craig Stephen Wilder offered his book, In The Company of Black Men, as an answer to historians who argued that African American institutional life was derived from white cultural standards. Instead of imitating white existing institutions such as churches and fraternal organizations, Wilder countered that early black institutions in New York City reflected a West African legacy. The thesis of the book as expressed by Wilder is "a reinterpretation of the origins of African American religion by locating the voluntary associations as a West African legacy and the source of the peculiar heredity of black institutional and philosophical Christianity."

Wilder emphasized that the degrading nature of slavery did not erode completely an African value system nor did it leave the enslaved docile. He stressed that captured Africans resisted their enslavement by utilizing intergenerational and intertribal secret societies that had their origins in West Africa. For example, he noted that the 1741 slave conspiracy in Manhattan was fueled by African traditions which nearly brought the city to the brink of revolution. Readers would at this point appreciate Wilder offering more analysis and evidence. Where in Africa did the enslave come from? Which tribes united to plan this conspiracy? Were the activists in the conspiracy acting as "Africans" devoid of western influences and psychological understanding of their oppressors, or were they somewhat acculturated to Euro-Americans values which may have assisted them in their planning?

In The Company of Black Men is a study of nationalism as applied to the formation of antebellum black institutions. Wilder declared that the moral basis of nationalistic thought had been largely unexamined. "The New York African Society for Mutual Relief and its subsidiary associations- which included benevolent and secret societies-brought their moral discipline to the black metropolis," he concluded. Despite the effort of the white controlled American Colonization Society and its few black supporters, most African Americans saw their destiny in America -- not Africa nor Haiti. Despite their physical removal from the land of their ancestors, and despite their open hostility to back-to-Africa attempts, the founders of voluntary societies and churches "treated Africa as the physical source of their humanity and equality." According to Wilder, the associations provided black New Yorkers with a social/welfare net as they spearheaded the struggle against slavery and racial discrimination. Wilder takes to task those scholars who criticized the voluntary associations excessive moralism "as evidence of their privilege and their coveting white approval." Wilder dismissed this assessment with the assertion that whites did not have a monopoly on an ethical culture. Instead, he added, "moralism was organic to the culture of African voluntary associations." He further denied that moralism was a reflection of accommodation or subservience but rather that it helped to "fuse religious passion to African nationalism, two ideological currents that countered white New Yorkers' insistence that liberty was the function of biology by isolating the struggle as moral and civil."

Masculinity represented to Wilder a major attribute of the voluntary societies not only in New York but also in slave societies in Cuba and Brazil. He listed Boston Crummell, a native of Sierre Leone and one of the founders of the New York African Society for Mutual Relief, Henry Highland Garnet, a former slave, militant abolitionist and Presbyterian minister, and James McCune Smith, M. …


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