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H-Net Review: Diouf, Dreams of Africa in Alabama

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  • Amos J Wright
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      From: H-Net Review Project Distribution List [mailto:H-REVIEW@...] On Behalf Of H-Net Staff
      Sent: Thursday, May 28, 2009 12:13 PM
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      Subject: H-Net Review Publication: 'All Good Men and Women Try to Forget: They Have Forgotten!'

      Sylviane A. Diouf. Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Story of the
      Clotilda and the Last Enslaved Africans Brought to America. Oxford
      Oxford University Press, 2007. 416 pp. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN
      978-0-19-531104-4.

      Reviewed by Nana Yaw B. Sapong (Department of History, Southern
      Illinois University-Carbondale)
      Published on H-Africa (April, 2009)
      Commissioned by Mark L. Lilleleht

      All Good Men and Women Try to Forget: They Have Forgotten!

      In the summer of 2007, I paid a visit to an old haunt of mine:
      Ghana's Cape Coast castle. Standing on a battlement with neatly
      arranged canons and cannonballs, the waves came crashing incessantly
      and showered me with fine spray. In addition to the sound of
      seagulls, the waves carried other voices to me: the soul-wrenching
      melancholic cries of fear, despair, and uncertainty. The Cape Coast
      castle was a major European fortress that held slaves before their
      departure to the New World. Readers will hear these voices as they
      read Sylviane A. Diouf's _Dreams of Africa in Alabama_. This book is
      a fine addition to existing narratives of the saga of the
      transatlantic slave trade and its effects on people and cultures on
      both sides of the Atlantic. It is a reconstruction of the lives of
      the last documented group of enslaved Africans shipped to the United
      States, their courage and resilience, and their hopes of returning to
      their ancestral homes one day. To them, the New World was just a
      transient experience.

      _Dreams of Africa in Alabama_ has a dual purpose: to draw attention
      to a historical inaccuracy and to emphasize the primacy of Old World
      cultures in explaining the nature of societies in the New World. To
      Diouf, studies in the transatlantic slave trade have either dismissed
      as a hoax or ignored the arrival of the slave ship _Clotilda_ and its
      enslaved passengers to the United States in the summer of 1860.
      Instead, the _Wanderer_ has been touted by historians and writers as
      the last slave ship to the United States, although the _Wanderer_'s
      arrival antedates the arrival of the _Clotilda_. On the grander scale
      of historical interpretation, Diouf points out the unique experience
      of the survivors of the _Clotilda_ as a case study of Old World
      cultural persistence and of resistance to New World acculturation. By
      drawing on their cultural experiences in Africa, Cudjo Lewis--the
      leader of the nascent community--and his shipmates on the _Clotilda_
      built a close-knit African community that survived the Civil War,
      Reconstruction, World War I, and the Great Depression. The shipmates
      of the _Clotilda_ "viewed and called themselves Africans and
      willfully maintained this identity with all the attendant manners,
      languages, behaviors, and practices that sustained it" (p. 232). They
      were Africans because they went through the cycles of life (birth,
      naming, puberty, marriage, and death) as if they were still in
      Africa.

      The book builds its themes in a logical and sequential manner. Diouf
      uses the first two chapters to lay out the historical context of her
      narrative, analysis, and interpretation. The reader is thus given a
      summary of the political economy of plantocracy in the United States
      and West Africa during the period of enforcement of the abolition of
      the transatlantic slave trade. In the United States, various attempts
      were made by southern states to revive the international trade in
      slaves because it was costly to acquire labor through the domestic
      trade. The southern press was rife with propaganda about the
      civilizing and Christianizing mission, and putting the worthless
      Africans to work. Across the Atlantic on the coast of West Africa,
      the era of "legitimate" commerce was in full swing, and so was the
      domestic slave trade. Diouf writes of marauding communities and
      martial kingdoms whose preoccupation was enslaving fellow Africans
      for sale, not only to West African palm oil plantations but also to
      the Americas. Diouf then moves on to the nitty-gritty of slave
      acquisition in West Africa, the exchange of hands, and preparations
      for the Middle Passage. The third chapter eases the reader into the
      Middle Passage while chapters 4, 5, and 6 deal with the realities of
      life in the southern United States as a slave through the period of
      the Civil War and emancipation. After emancipation, chapter 7
      narrates how the shipmates of the _Clotilda_ decided to found Africa
      Town and become citizens of the United States after "valiant attempts
      at leaving" proved futile (p. 171). Chapters 8 and 9 explore the
      social issues arising from building this new community, such as
      racism, segregation, crime and violence, black disenfranchisement,
      and legal battles for compensation. The last two chapters detail the
      particularly devastating events surrounding Lewis who got hit by a
      train; had a protracted legal battle with Louisville & Nashville
      Railroad Company; and lost his children and Abile, his wife and
      companion. The book concludes with contemporary attempts at reviving
      and keeping the African roots of Africa Town alive. These include
      trying to establish relations with Benin.

      Diouf is at pains to consult a vast array of sources, including
      government documents, newspaper prints, oral histories, missionary
      accounts, ship documents, and linguistic data to put her themes
      across. In assigning agency to African cultural experiences, Diouf
      takes great care to explain African cultural markers, such as group
      affiliation, naming and its significance, and the institutions of
      marriage and religion, among others. Throughout the chapters, Diouf
      goes to lengths to point out the African origins of life and events
      in Africa Town. She pays particular attention to the names and origin
      of the enslaved shipmates of the _Clotilda_, asserting that their
      names were a crucial part of their African identity. When Lewis's son
      died, he conjured his son's African personality by calling him by his
      Yoruba name, Feichitan. Indeed, "in the midst of misery, Africa was
      the refuge" (p. 214). Again, the surviving shipmates of the
      _Clotilda_ asked that their original names be used in their
      biographies because of "their attachment to their peoples and their
      homes, and of their unwavering identity as small-town West Africans"
      (p. 220). What I find more profound is how Diouf explains that to the
      enslaved Africans, the Middle Passage was tragic not because of the
      dreadful experiences that captives had to endure but because of the
      racial nature that slavery assumed, and their failure to grasp it. To
      the enslaved Africans on the _Clotilda_, "they were free men held
      against their will," not slaves. "The abject degradation ... and the
      vile bashing of their honor did not seem to have altered their sense
      of identity as freeborn men and women who found themselves prisoners"
      (p. 70).

      Diouf also explores issues around ideas of and requests for
      compensation after emancipation. To the Africans, the thought of
      community went hand in glove with the acquisition of land. They
      therefore decided to ask for land from their ex-masters: in the case
      of the survivors of the _Clotilda_, the Meahers, the family that
      acquired them. According to Diouf, the Africans "had based their
      claim on two grounds: compensation was due not only because of the
      free labor they had provided when enslaved, but also because they had
      been uprooted from family and land" (pp. 152-153). In a comparative
      study of the claims of slaves and ex-slaves to family and property in
      southern Gold Coast and the southern states of the United States in
      the nineteenth century, Dylan Penningroth sheds more light on the
      idea of compensation. Penningroth asserts that the "histories of both
      regions were shaped by debates about the claims that slaves and their
      descendants made to kinship and to the products of their labor."[1]
      Thus, when the shipmates elected Lewis to speak to Timothy Meaher
      about compensation in land, they thought they had a moral right to
      their claims. Meaher did not see it that way, claiming that he
      treated his slaves well compared to other plantations in the area,
      somehow voiding any such claims.

      _Dreams of Africa in Alabama_ is an excellent attempt to explain the
      founding of a New World society via Old World cultural inheritance.
      Diouf's model of interpretation is in contrast to other scholars who
      argue for the primacy of the New World environment in determining
      social formations. However, there are some fluid situations that make
      such wholesale models of interpretation problematic. The Old World
      had its cultural baggage and the New World had its realities and
      challenges, forcing continuity, adaptation, and sometimes changes.
      David Eltis, Philip Morgan, and David Richardson argue that Atlantic
      history needs to "break out of" this "straitjacket" imposition
      because "community and cultural formation in the early Americas was a
      product of many forces."[2] _Dreams of Africa in Alabama_ has
      instances of adaptation--such as slaves taking on American
      names--though Diouf does not present these as markers of
      acculturation but rather as survival strategies. In their "inner
      African circle," they still kept their African names. My own sense is
      that the first and second generations of _Clotilda_ shipmates were
      able to resist acculturation because of the extant memories of
      Africa. However, by the fourth generation, dreams of Africa were
      fading, and they died with Lewis in 1935.

      Diouf's book is a welcome addition to texts on Atlantic history as
      well as African American history. University instructors may find it
      appropriate as an assigned text in an undergraduate seminar or
      graduate colloquium on Atlantic history. The heartrending empathy
      aroused by Diouf's book is echoed in Ama Ata Aidoo's _Anowa_ (1980).
      In _Anowa_, Anowa's grandma (Nana) tells Anowa of her adventures to
      the sea that was bigger than any river and the forts on the coast
      that rose up to the sky and contained many rooms. These "big houses"
      were built by the "pale men" for keeping slaves. Asked what a slave
      is, Nana replies that a slave is "one who is bought and sold," and
      that the "pale men" got the slaves from the land. Then Anowa asks
      Nana, "'What happened to those who were taken away? Do people hear
      from them? How are they?' Nana told Anowa to shut up and that it was
      time to go to bed: 'No one talks of these things anymore! All good
      men and women try to forget; they have forgotten!'"[3] For Lewis and
      the others from the _Clotilda_, they never forgot. Bonded together by
      slavery, this group attempted to repatriate to Africa after
      emancipation. When the possibility of repatriation became bleak, they
      decided to "recreate Africa where they were. They shared all they
      had, saved money, built each other's houses, and solved problems
      collectively" (p. 3). They held on to the dream of reuniting with
      their ancestral land by replicating Africa in Alabama.

      Notes

      [1]. Dylan Penningroth, "The Claims of Slaves and Ex-Slaves to Family
      and Property: A Transatlantic Comparison," _The American Historical
      Review_ 112, no. 4 (October 2007): 1040.

      [2]. David Eltis, Philip Morgan, and David Richardson, "Agency and
      Diaspora in Atlantic History: Reassessing the African Contribution to
      Rice Cultivation in the Americas," _The American Historical Review_
      112, no. 5 (December 2007): 1332.

      [3]. Ama Ata Aidoo, _Anowa_ (Harlow and Essex: Longman Drumbeat,
      1980), 44-46.

      Citation: Nana Yaw B. Sapong. Review of Diouf, Sylviane A., _Dreams
      of Africa in Alabama: The Story of the Clotilda and the Last Enslaved
      Africans Brought to America_. H-Africa, H-Net Reviews. April, 2009.
      URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=24598

      This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
      Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States
      License.
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