Sunday, November 11, 2018

Review - The River Flows On: Black Resistance, Culture, and Identity Formation in Early America

Walter C. Rucker. The River Flows On: Black Resistance, Culture, and Identity Formation in Early America, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 2006 xii + 288 pp. $49.95. Notes, bibliography, and index.
          One of the major criticisms of early American history is that it ignores Africa. In the past few decades this has changed, with historians like Ira Berlin and Randy J. Sparks using the Atlantic World lens to insert Africa into otherwise Americanist histories. But some scholars, like Walter C. Rucker, argue that inserting Africa and Africans into the story is not enough. One must also seek to understand African people at a more fundamental level. For Rucker, this means acknowledging that the behavior of African Americans was "largely shaped by their African past" (4). Rucker's book, The River Flows On: Black Resistance, Culture, and Identity Formation in Early America, does this by analyzing slave revolts in North America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. His central thesis is that African culture did in fact survive the middle passage to British North America, and that these cultural ties inspired slaves to resist chattel slavery. 

          The book is divided into two parts, each divided into three chapters. The first part deals with the 1712 revolt in New York City, the 1741 New York conspiracy, and the Stono Rebellion. The second focuses on the Denmark Vesey conspiracy and rebellions led by Gabriel Prosser and Nat Turner. Each chapter provides a summary of the event in question and a breakdown of the ways in which African culture influenced it. According to the bibliography, The River Flows On draws upon a number of unpublished archival sources, though it is hard to find instances where Rucker uses these sources extensively. Much of what Rucker does draw on is derived from the Du Bois Institute slave trade database (otherwise known as David Eltis' Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database). This database, in comparison to older sources like Philip Curtin's The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census, "provides a more accurate picture of the patterns and shape of the Atlantic slave trade," particularly in regard to how it allows one to trace the development of African "ethnic enclaves" throughout the Americas (6). Rucker uses the database to show how the majority of Africans sent to British colonies between 1601 and 1800 came from the Gold Coast, proving that these slaves had shared "cultural and sociopolitical origins" (31). More often than not, however, Rucker relies on secondary sources. At certain points the book reads like a historiographical essay, with historians Michael Mullin and Douglas Egerton appearing repeatedly as intellectual foils in Rucker's chapters on Nat Turner and Gabriel Prosser. Rucker is at times so eager to debate these historians within his narrative that he, perhaps unintentionally, strays from the central thrust of the book.

            Indeed, one of the major problems with this book is its use of evidence. For example, in regard to the 1712 revolt, Rucker argues that one of the participants, Peter the Doctor, "was possibly an Akan-speaking Obeah doctor" because he "rubbed powder onto the New York slaves" to make them invulnerable (38). This, he claims, demonstrates how African slaves were in the process of creating a collective "African" identity in North America (58). His chapter on the 1741 conspiracy makes tenuous connections as well. For Rucker, the fact that slaves took oaths of secrecy and knew how to use firearms is enough to conclude that they were directly influenced by Akan culture (83). He also sidesteps the fact that whites and blacks worked together in the 1741 conspiracy, likely so that he could later claim that Gabriel Prosser's rebellion was, as argued by Egerton, not an act of class struggle pitting "highly politicized urban artisans, black and white, [against] those who lived from the toil of others" (134). Rucker contends that it was Prosser's employment as a blacksmith, and not his mastery of revolutionary rhetoric, that drew Igbo slaves to his cause, an argument he makes by noting how Igbo cultural values made them inclined to show deference to metalworkers. Rucker's argument against Egerton hinges upon the idea that whites and blacks could not work together, which is a claim that requires further investigation given what we know about the 1741 conspiracy. What is more likely is that Gabriel Prosser's rebellion drew inspiration both from revolutionary rhetoric and African culture. Problems related to potential analytical overreach reappear in Rucker's chapters on Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner, with his arguments that Vesey drew on pan-African connections and that Turner was in reality more an African conjurer than a practitioner of Christianity needing more evidence.

            The River Flows On is as problematic as it is necessary. Though the connections Rucker traces between slave revolts and African culture can be tenuous, his arguments prove the value of considering the influence of African culture on American history. It is too much, however, to say that African culture was the sole influencer of events, which in some ways discounts the idea that slaves, through creolization, created their own unique identities. Had Rucker delved deeper into the specifics of slave culture, rather than trying so hard to find Africa in North America, it would have made his latter chapters more believable. For example, it is difficult to accept that by the nineteenth century, third or fourth generation slaves participating in Nat Turner's rebellion were drawing on or appealing to specific African cultures so directly. Perhaps, instead, they were drawing on a creolized version of that culture, which itself was mixed with the Christian rhetoric espoused by Turner. This is more believable than the idea that Turner's rebellion had either "purely Christian" or purely African roots (187). At the very least, The River Flows On provides an excellent overview of the major slave revolts in North America, with its unique form of analysis opening up new lines of thinking for scholars interested in the extent to which African culture shaped the course of American history.

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Nicholas Garcia (M.A.) is a PhD Candidate at the University of California, Davis. He is also a Co-Founder of the Bulosan Center for Filipino Studies. Previously, he contributed to and the Davis Humanities Institute.