African American Life in the Georgia Lowcountry: The Atlantic World and the Gullah Geechee

By Smith, Haydern R. | South Carolina Historical Magazine, July-October 2011 | Go to article overview

African American Life in the Georgia Lowcountry: The Atlantic World and the Gullah Geechee


Smith, Haydern R., South Carolina Historical Magazine


African American Life in the Georgia Lowcountry: The Atlantic World and the Gullah Geechee. Edited by Philip Morgan. Race in the Atlantic World, 1700-1900. (Athens: Published by the University of Georgia Press in association with the Georgia Humanities Council, 2010. Pp. xi, 311; $34.95, cloth.)

As the population of the southeastern coastline grows, discussions of historical and cultural preservation in the wake of development become ever more relevant. This collection of scholarship documenting African American life in the Georgia low country resulted from intensifying questions about balancing population growth and economic development with preservation in the Golden Isles. Initiating this dialogue, the Ossabaw Island Education Alliance, representing Georgia's first heritage preserve on a six-thousandacre barrier island approximately twenty miles south of Savannah, hosted a roundtable discussion in 2005 that evolved into an educational symposium three years later. The Savannah-based symposium, "The Atlantic World and African Life and Culture in the Georgia Lowcountry: 18th to the 20th Century," attracted ten prominent scholars, including three Bancroft Prize recipients, to present original research discussing African Americans "on the Georgia coast and the interaction of culture with environment and economics for over two hundred years" (p. x). Edited by Philip Morgan, Harry C. Black Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University, the interdisciplinary anthology produced from this forum addresses the often-overlooked African American experience on the Georgia sea islands and simultaneously places this experience in the context of the Atlantic World.

Morgan's thirty-plus-year documentation of low-country African American history clearly resonates in the introduction and first essay. In the introduction, Morgan unifies diverse methodologies, ranging from anthropology to literary studies, by structuring the ten essays around "issues of marginality and cenrrality" for Gullah-Geechee communities (p. 3). The book fosters Erskine Clarke's query of South Carolina Gullah and Georgia Geechee as either "a largely marginal group in American society and consequently an attraction for tourists seeking an exotic and fading culture," or "a part of a broad Amer ican experience and window into the very character of American history" (p. 2). Morgan's essay expands Clarke's point, emphasizing how colonial Georgia African American historiography flushes out themes of changing perceptions of slavery, intercultural contact in the borderlands, and plantation diaspora transferred from the Caribbean to South Carolina to Georgia. Regarding the latter, Morgan cleverly plays off of Peter Wood's phrase that "Georgia was a colony of a colony of a colony," providing a successional chain of cultural and technological transfer seen in the plantation enterprise and acculturated participants (p. 25).

Morgan organizes the remaining essays chronologically, with overlapping topics and fields guiding the reader from one chapter to the next. The Revolutionary War era serves as a backdrop for Betty Wood's analysis of gender and agency, while VincentCarretta examines the complexity of culture and diaspora. Wood discusses the dichromatic conditions experienced by low-country African American women as the Revolution provided opportunities for escape from their enslavers and enhanced their roles as negotiators. Yet even as enslaved women met with newly acquired freedoms, war also exposed them to harsher acts of violence from soldiers and slave owners. Carretta's study of five Revolutionary era African American authors complicates the concepts of diaspora and freedom. Migrating between Africa, the Caribbean, North America, and England under the guise of emancipation, the authors' voyages were not direct passages across the Atlantic, but instead reflected the broader economic, political, and cultural entrepôts. …

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