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REVIEW: dreams of africa in alabama

REVIEW: books--dreams of africa in alabama
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

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

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.


[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.

Can be purchased at Afrigeneas Bookstore@ OR check out at nearest library at

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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