Transcript: 42. James Sidbury on African Identity

An interview with James Sidbury about the emergence of a self-conscious African identity in the diaspora.

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Today's episode will be an interview about African identity in the early 19th century with James Sidbury, who is Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Rice University.

Thanks for coming on the podcast.

Thank you for inviting me.

We're going to be talking about the emergence of African identity in mostly the English speaking world. And I wanted to start at the start. So how early do we observe the first signs of an African identity among diasporic Africans, as opposed to identity tied to the local place or people in Africa, where these people had been born? I mean, was there a tension between these two forms of identity?

That's a great question. In part, it's nice that it's phrased in terms of “how early do we see…?” Because one of the issues that arises with this kind of work is that one only gets occasional glimpses of what people were thinking, because these are people who did not control the written record. So one of the interesting things about this is there's a cluster of evidence of people talking of themselves as Africans that comes during the 1760s and 1770s. And the most famous and obvious ones involve the London based writer of letters, Ignatius Sancho, and the Massachusetts based poet, Phyllis Wheatley. But there's also a church in Williamsburg, Virginia, a Baptist church founded by an African American preacher named Gowan Pamphlet, that calls itself the African Baptist Church of Williamsburg. And all of these things are occurring sometime in the 1760s through 1780. Sancho's letters are published in 1784, but they're published as a group posthumously, and many of them were published before then. So that's when this first happens. And is there a tension between that and this notion of African identity, and an identity that's rooted in the continent of Africa that would not have been an African identity? Because of course, nobody living in Africa at the time would have thought themselves African, they would have thought themselves residents of a village or members of an ethnic group, an Igbo, a Khan, a Yoruban. Among historians, it's now very controversial to figure out how many of those identities were actually present at that point, and how many of them emerged in Africa later on. But they would at any rate have had what we would think of as ethnic identities that were rooted in specific places in Africa. And there is a tension between those ways of thinking of the self historically, though I don't think there has to be. I don't think it's an inherent tension. But because the discussions of what it meant to be African that emerged among diasporic peoples from the 1770s onward, were very profoundly Christian and very self consciously, and you always have to use scare quotes when you use this word, “civilized”. Their notion of what it meant to be African was to be a kind of person that was quite rare on the continent of Africa. And their project was one that was going to in fact, turn Igbos into Africans, or Yorubans into Africans by quote unquote, “civilizing” them by converting them to true religion, which in their mind was Christianity, usually evangelical Christianity.

You mentioned Wheatley and Sancho, we have the letters of Sancho, we have the poems of Wheatley. We also have letters from Wheatley, actually; but mostly with her, I guess we're dealing with poems. How do we see this emerging in their work? They refer to themselves as African, right? They use the word “African” of themselves.

Yes, I see them as the progenitors of a kind of literary discourse of African identity. But they are that without intending to be that. African was a descriptor that Europeans used for people from Africa from way back. And thus, when they began to publish, they were often referred to as African, that had all sorts of potentially derogatory meanings in British and American culture at the time. So one can easily imagine that they might have run from it. They did not, they embraced it. And they often used it. They used it differently. Sancho was very playful, Lawrence Stern was his model. And so everything he wrote was ironic and had several layers of jokes involved in it. And so there's a case one time in which he was commenting, as he often did on British politics. And he wrote, you know, what does a thick lipped son of Africa have to say about this? Now, it's clear in doing that, that there are these several layers. He's on the one hand commenting on the fact that white Britons would often think that a black person wouldn't have an opinion on that. He's using a derogatory physical descriptor of Africans in doing it; and he's doing that while commenting on British politics in a very knowing way, and taking this position and thus undercutting all of those kinds of racist assumptions that underlie that. Phyllis Wheatley was not funny, at least not in print.

[Laughter] She's very serious.

Yes. She's a deeply evangelical woman, a part of the Calvinist wing of the Methodist movement, centered on the Countess of Huntington in London. And she did not make these playful allusions, but there is a kind of famous case in which she instructs Deists and asks if an Ethiope must be the one to instruct them. And of course then what she does is instruct them. It's clear that an Ethiope is the one that needs to instruct them in that way. And so they both make use of that term or that descriptor, make it something that is positive. And I think that those who come after them then much more self-consciously start to use it and to style what it means to be an African as a result of their writings.

And then the American Revolutionary War happens, and this creates a kind of new context in which black people in America can kind of form an identity. Maybe you could talk about that with reference to Baptists and how that works in this context.

Yes, the American Revolution plays an enormously important role in all of this. And it plays a number of different roles, in fact. And so I'll work to the Baptists, but it is true that the first and most important change affected by the American Revolution in structuring the ways in which these discussions took place has to do with the anti-slavery impulses that were a part of the revolution. Now, historians argue endlessly about whether the revolution should be considered anti-slavery or pro-slavery or somewhere in between. For what it's worth, I tend to fall on the pro-slavery side of the argument. But there are undoubtedly very strong anti-slavery impulses among some of the leaders of the revolution. And without those, it's difficult to see how the new states in which slavery was not an absolutely crucial socioeconomic force would have moved to abolish slavery. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey all abolished slavery (or all put slavery on the road to abolition, would be a better way to put it) by 1804. New Jersey is the last of those states to do that. What that means is that there are a lot of enslaved people in the North who are acquiring their freedom, and there are free Black communities that are coming together there. And those free Black communities become absolutely crucial incubators of these discussions about what it means to be African. So on one level, the revolution's crucial for that. On the other side, and it's truly on the other side, the pro-slavery sides of the revolution meant that especially for Africans and African descendant people living in plantation areas, the appeal of the British was very strong. Now, the British were not anti-slavery in any serious way at this point, but they were willing to offer freedom to enslaved people who would come to help them fight their masters. And so a large number – about 9,000 is the best estimate we have – of enslaved Southerners ran to the British during the American Revolution, either in Virginia or in South Carolina. Those are the two main places that happened. That created, once the war ended, the British did live up to their promise to these people. So they did not return them to their masters, even though the treaty that was signed in Paris would have suggested that they should have. They wound up in Nova Scotia. About a third wound up in Nova Scotia. So the biggest group wound up in Nova Scotia. Some went to the Caribbean, some went to London. But yes, there is this diaspora of people who move out from the diaspora, an American diaspora of African-American people, about 3,000 of whom go to Nova Scotia, a much more difficult number to quantify who go to the Caribbean and a large number who go to London. And they carry some of these discourses. And this is where the Baptists are so interesting. The Baptists were famously congregational. So one cannot exactly say the Baptists think any single thing everywhere. But in the low country of South Carolina and Georgia, a movement emerged among Black Baptists that clearly involved a sense of the self as African. It's got complicated roots and obscure roots. So they are both complicated and difficult to trace. What is clear is that by the time you get to the revolution, a group of Black Baptists in the low country start to coalesce in Savannah, which was occupied by the British. They come there, they form a congregation. They're led by two men born in Virginia, George Liela and David George, and a man born in either South Carolina or Georgia. The man who owned him when he was enslaved had a land that that bridged the Savannah River. So he could have been on either, but Andrew Bryan and they formed this congregation. They were all tremendously charismatic preachers, very, very powerful men. And following the war, Andrew Bryan stayed there founded what became the African Baptist Church of Savannah. It then split off and there's now a first African Baptist and a second African Baptist Church of Savannah. George Liela went to Jamaica where he founded the Black Baptist movement of Jamaica, which became absolutely central in what's called the Baptist War off and the last great slave rebellion of the British Caribbean that was quite important in leading the British to abolish slavery in 1833. And David George went eventually to New York with the British, and then was one of those who went to Nova Scotia, founded a Black Baptist Church in Nova Scotia. And then, to sort of jump ahead a little bit to something we'll talk about later, he was one of a group of these Black loyalists who went to Nova Scotia, who became dissatisfied in Nova Scotia and became the pioneer settlers of the British African colony of Sierra Leone. And he took the Baptist movement to the British colony of Sierra Leone.

Something else that happens sort of in parallel to this is up in Boston. We were talking about the south, but up in Boston, you have this, to me, actually kind of surprising phenomenon, which is Freemasonry among black Americans. And the key figure here is Prince Hall. Would you see that as a comparatively secular development? I mean, of course, they talk a lot about the Bible and so on in the Masonic text as well. But compared to Baptist Christianity.

Yes, “comparatively secular” is exactly the right way to put it. That is, this is the 18th century. And as you well know, and most listeners probably know, the line between secular and sacred that we have now is not the same as the one that they had that. But he was a Mason. He was an artisan in Boston, had fought against slavery in Massachusetts, had petitioned to try to end slavery in Massachusetts. He had then sought to become a Mason. And the Masons are a really interesting group because on the one hand, they are rightly seen as an elite, as an expression of elite enlightenment thought. But they did have a commitment, uneven, to a notion of human equality. And they did have an appeal that could spread beyond that. Nobody knows where exactly Prince Hall decide how he decided he wanted to become a Mason. But he did. He asked the Boston Lodge to sponsor his lodge. Lodges could start other lodges and they would not do it. He still started a lodge, got frustrated, got it sponsored by London, which then gave him the ability to sponsor other lodges in other places. And thus he started building these locuses of it is now called Prince Hall Masonry and in the 1820s, if I remember correctly, they changed the name to honor the founder, but he named it African Masonry. And so he founded these African Masonic lodges throughout the north, which communicated it's clear we have little bits of paper showing that they wrote back and forth. Alas, almost all of it is lost. So we don't know very much about what they said, but they were in contact. And it was a kind of an incipient attempt to build a network of free black people who were working together in their localities and beyond their localities to develop a sense of themselves as African people, as civilized Christian people who would transform Africa and fight for the rights of African and African descended people throughout the British world at any rate.

Actually a phrase you've used in writing about this is that they were trying to call an African people into existence. And you talk about this also with reference to the Methodists and the Episcopalians. So you have Richard Allen, you have Daniel Coker, you have Absalom Jones, quite a lot of figures. We probably don't have time to talk about individually, but they also use this word African very prominently in their kind of institutional framework.

Yes, they do. And the thing that gets very interesting to me about what these and there is this, that is the Masons are relatively more secular than the others, but all of them root what is common to African people in their view in a mythic past. And by “mythic,” I don't mean false. I mean, a past that goes back to in their stories, biblical time. So it was absolutely fundamentally true to them. Prince Hall does this through the way in which black masons (and this is black “little m” masons, that is, those who were building things) were involved in building South Solomon's temple. And so he has all of these kinds of explorations of how Nubians would have been among those building this, how Moses was married to a Nubian. And so there would have been all of this intermixture at that point. Daniel Coker, who is an African Methodist and Richard Allen, who is an African Methodist and Absalom Jones, who's an African Episcopalian are in contact with Prince Hall. They all are at least epistolary friends. Coker and Allen and Jones are closer friends. And they all root this kind of sense of what makes them “African” in biblical scripture. And they're particularly taken with a phrase from the first epistle of Peter in which God calls out a chosen people, a special people. And they see God having preordained that Africans would be a people. And thus they're trying to recreate that sense of unity, which create existed in mythic times, they feel, and had been broken in the modern era.

Oh, that's really interesting. It sort of means that because the diaspora gives them this Christian context for thinking about what it means to be African, when they go back to Africa, then in a way they're importing this biblical idea of Africans as being one people, which maybe didn't exist in Africa.

Yes, I think that's entirely true. And it can be traced most clearly in the most famous text produced by these these people, which is Ouladah Equiano’s: An Interesting Narrative of the Life of Ouladah Equiano or Gustavus Fassa, the African; this long title, which in its name sort of embodies all of the kind of changes that he saw occurring across time. And he has a very interesting incident in which he hires himself out, or he is hired by a man who he knew in London and had worked for. He was enslaved, sold into slavery, won his freedom, ended up in London. His biography is tremendously interesting, but also very complicated to recreate. But he ends up there and he goes to work for a man who, well, he had been working for him. He gets hired to be an overseer for him on a plantation that he's going to build in on the Mosquito Coast of what's now Nicaragua. And he goes to do that and he reports that he was assigned to go and buy slaves in the slave market in Jamaica. He went to buy them there and “bought them all my own countrymen.” Not entirely clear what that means, but the most obvious meaning would be that they were Igbo, because he reports in the text that he's an Igbo, he was born an Igbo man. In the, I think it's the sixth edition, he adds a footnote, no, he adds a line that says, some of whom were Libyan. Okay. And then he has a footnote to a biblical dictionary saying that the sons of Afar had gone through Libya and had become Sub-Saharan Africans. And so it's this clear way of saying that there is an original unity. And that what he is trying to do is bring bring it back. I think his argument is a typological argument that existed in the Old Testament. The anti-type will come into existence in the New Testament as a kind of chosen people of God in a new dispensation, in a Christian Africa that brings everyone together again. But that's very much what these people have in mind.

Actually let's turn our attention to Africa itself now. The period we're talking about, so we're in the late 18th, early 19th century, sometimes people call this the age of revolution. We have the Haitian revolution, we have the American revolution, and we have something that most people, including me, don't know as much about, which is the 1800 revolution in Sierra Leone. So can you say something about that?

Sure. You're not on your own and not knowing. And it is a one day revolution. But it's a really interesting story. These men who went to Nova Scotia, some of them became unhappy there. They petitioned the British government asking them to take them to somewhere else. And they did it right at the moment at which the Sierra Leone company was coming into existence and getting a charter from the crown to start a colony in Africa. They become the first people who go there. They're about a thousand of them, 1300. They arrive. They have difficulty from the start with the government that the company sets up for them. One has to be careful talking about this. This was without question the most racially egalitarian polity in control by white people in the world at that time. So the company appointed a white governor, but they created a kind of legislature that was elected by people, all settlers having the right to vote. They appointed constables. The constables tended to be – actually every constable I can think of – was a settler, an African-American settler. They had trial by jury. The juries were often all black and certainly predominantly black, because the settlers were predominantly black. So it's important not to give the impression that this is a colony founded by philanthropists seeking to prove (however awkward it is to talk today in these terms) that African people could govern themselves and become a civilized Christian people. And so they are doing that. On the other hand, they do not distribute land in the way that they had promised the settlers they would do. And there's just an ongoing struggle between the settlers and the company over the right to land, which is absolutely central to the settlers' sense of themselves as a people. They're going to be independent farmers who can defend themselves, defend their own rights on their own land. So all of this ends up leading to a whole series of disputes that culminates in 1800, when a group, probably two thirds of the settlers in Sierra Leone, rise up and declare that they want to change the terms in which they live there. Now, they nail a set of laws to a door. It includes a whole set of laws that we would think of as statutory laws, things that you can do, can't do, all sorts of things like that. And then it includes a set of statements that were in the way in which the world of the age of revolution thought of things, fundamental law, things about you have to, all those who don't obey these laws must leave the place. Anyone who goes to the company rather than here is excluded, declares that we declare these laws just before man and God. Now, this is something I've been thinking a lot of recently, and I've changed some of my thinking since I wrote the book. It is clear it's not a declaration of independence. It just simply does not declare independence. When I wrote the book, I acknowledged that and then said, but that's really what it was. And then I went back and read it and especially in light of some really interesting work that's being done on the appeal of Royalism to people of African descent and people and indigenous peoples in the age of revolution, I came to realize that they're very careful not to declare independence and they're very careful not to make any effort to kick the crown out of Sierra Leone. What they do say is that settlers will make the laws that govern settlers. The company will regulate the commercial activity of the company. As I've come to think of it now, and this is different from what I thought when I wrote the book, what they're moving toward is something similar to what all sorts of people in certain parts of Latin America were moving towards, what some of the less studied leaders of what became the Haitian Revolution were moving toward, which was a vision of a place for Black people in a monarchical system that was safer than it would be in a Republic. And it was safer than it would be in a Republic, even if you could imagine a Republic that would grant formal equality to people of African descent, because monarchies had a well-developed tradition of granting corporate privileges to groups that could then defend their privileges as a group. And that's what these Sierra Leoneans were trying to do, get the right to govern themselves and to defend themselves against anything that the company might want to do to them. It's pretty clear that lots of Native Americans wanted that at the same time that a number of other African groups did. And as I'm coming to see it, it seems to me that it's a kind of a really interesting critique of white Republicanism, one that isn't systematized in the way that, say, Tocqueville did, the notion of the tyranny of the majority. But these are people who really understand a tyrannist majority. And they're looking for a world in which, rather than being subject to a majority, they're going to be able to fight for themselves as a group that has protection from somebody who's granted them the privileges. And so I see this all fitting into this idea of all fitting into the age of revolution now much differently than I did, I guess, when I read the book.

And when Paul Cuffe comes along and tries to establish a link between the American African community and the Sierra Leone colony, is he trying to do the same thing? Or how does that compare?

No, that's a great question. No, Paul Cuffe is much more committed to the possibility of a world in which Republican governments can recognize the rights of all peoples. That makes sense in a lot of ways. He's a Quaker. So he comes from the religious denomination that certainly doesn't match what we would like to think are our opinions about what racial equality is, but are way ahead of any other group at the time in that regard. He comes from Massachusetts, which was way ahead of most places. He is in a community in which he has a Native American wife. He has white patrons. He comes out of a world that's very different from most of these Nova Scotians who came from plantation societies and had escaped slavery. So what he wants to do is create a world, or a nation, that is amazingly progressive for that time and is a vision of nationalism that's much needed now. It's one that doesn't involve walls or barriers. It's one that doesn't involve exclusions. It is one in which black people would rise as a nation. He's very clear about that. He uses language that, as somebody doing research, there are just these moments that are way too rare where the people you're looking at actually say what you want them to say! He does at one point say that his goal is to make Africa a historian's nation. He's absolutely engaged in this notion of what a nation is at a time when that's an absolutely central issue for philosophers throughout the Western world. But what he wants out of that is he thinks it's absolutely necessary that there's somewhere that Africans control a polity. That, for him, is what Sierra Leone is going to be. So he travels there to try to foster that. He does not believe that the nation that emerges around that, the nation state, will encompass the nation of African people. So he gets there. He organizes what, in anachronistic terms, we could call a chamber of commerce in Freetown that's made up of relatively well-to-do Nova Scotian settlers. He then goes back to the United States and organizes this little Black chamber of commerce, as he calls them, African societies in each city in each of the major port cities, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, New Haven, Boston, and to some degree, Richmond. He's less successful in Richmond. His idea is that what will happen then is that will be the way in which trade occurs between Sierra Leone and the United States. That will have the dual effects of bringing Sierra Leone more firmly into the world of benevolent commerce. He was a merchant and a shipbuilder, and he believed in the world of benevolent commerce. So it would bring them more firmly into there, but it would also create a kind of positive feedback loop in which African Americans would control the profits made from that. Africans would control the profits. You would have a kind of socioeconomic basis for well-being in all these places, and it would not be a group with corporate privileges in the way that you would have it in a monarchy. It would instead be a group with the ability to defend itself because it would be socioeconomically powerful enough to do that, and thus more in the kind of interest group notion of rights and privileges that we get in Republican North America.

So as we move ahead then to the 1820s, and we kind of get into a period where these kind of immigrationist projects start to fail – one idea that I had sort of reading up on all this is, well, if the American colonization society and all these white slaveholders had just stayed out of it and let African Americans like Paul Cuffe run the show, then actually that might have been a more successful enterprise. Is that too simplistic?

I don't think so. I think there are two sort of body blows to the immigrationist movement that occurred in 1817, and one is Paul Cuffee dies, and losing him is just an enormous blow, in part because he was a very wealthy man and he was willing to put money behind this, and that had a lot to do with the way it built. And the other was he was a very prominent man, so he met with the president, he met with the secretary of state, he met with British merchants, he could build a kind of level of support there, but the other, and it happened the same year, was the founding of the American Colonization Society. And it's founding those who supported immigration didn't think at first it was going to be that big a body blow. There were members involved in the founding of the American colonization society who were sincere opponents of slavery and believed that it was going to be a way to help put slavery on the road to elimination. And Cuffe died before we can be sure of how he felt about it, but he was friendly with those people, and Richard Allen was friendly with those people, and there were ties. But the black public saw it immediately as an attempt by white slave owners to put together a system to deport free black people to ensure the safety of their control of enslaved people. Because all the black people who were left in America would be slaves. If all of the free people were moved by the American Colonization Society. And so that just destroyed it. We'll never know what would have happened if that hadn't occurred, but it certainly couldn't have been worse. And the immigration movement had been on a really steadily upward trajectory, and it becomes so much more complicated and so much more interesting, in part because of Cuffe, and was moving in a direction where it didn't involve anything where huge numbers of people had to choose to move. It involved really building a kind of an African Atlantic commercial and intellectual community.

One very general last question. All these people that we've talked about who are thinking about Africa, what is their attitude towards Africa? You say in your book at one point that sometimes they see it as a dark and pagan continent in need of salvation, but sometimes they see it as an earthly Eden victimized by white slave traders. Actually, I was just looking at a sermon by John Marrant, where he says that the Garden of Eden paradise was actually in Africa, he tries to prove it. So there's this, it seems like there's this kind of dichotomy there in the way they see Africa. Do you think that that's just a kind of tension that they're always going back and forth between the two, or is one of those more dominant?

Yes, I think the vision of Africa as a dark continent is probably more dominant. It's so much more dominant in white letters and whites control the written record, the print world to such an extent that it's probably more dominant, but it is always in tension. And the thing that lots of black writers do is to try to make them a part of the same story. So in those sermons and pamphlets, they will talk about an Edenic Africa that was destroyed by white slaveholders and then becomes this hellish place where no one is safe and no one can live. And from which we or our ancestors in the way they write were stolen and sold into the Americas. And so they can come together. They're not always in tension. Some people fall all the way on one side and some all the way on the other, but really most have some elements of both in there. And so that's so that's just one of the tensions that plays out in these discussions.


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