Joining and in some ways exceeding a recent list of Black Power-era scholarship, Russell Rickford’s We Are an African People is the first up-to-date chronicle and intellectual history of what the author calls “Pan African nationalist schools.” National in scope and well attuned to local and international contexts, We Are an African People pays particular attention to organizations and institutional builders-cum-activists of the late 1960s and 1970s, offering “a sympathetic yet critical analysis of Pan African nationalism’s ideological groundings… [and] a host of theoretical and practical weaknesses [that] plagued the quest for independent black institutions” (p. 18). Rickford combines intellectual rigor with dense archival research, packaged in higher level argumentation, yet the prose is accessible. The result or aim is not simply an examination of “Black Power through the lens of independent schools,” but rather the fertile political ideas generated by their discourses and as “a valuable means of accessing contemporary efforts to model a postrevolutionary future,” set against Rickford’s own political and intellectual biography. As Rickford explains, “I had aspired to open an Afrocentric academy as a symbol of my commitment to black nationalist development…[as a member] of the African-American middle class…. Probing the genealogy of my own bourgeois nationalist origins led to an analysis of the late Black Power ideologies in the age of neoliberalism. We Are an African People is the product of that inquiry” (pp. ix-x). Though Rickford’s political coming-of-age may necessarily be the coming-of-age of Black Power scholarship, the book under review offers much to digest and consider beyond the intellectual biographies of either the author or his topic.
The Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade is the culmination of decades of archival research and international collaboration among scholars, led by David Eltis and colleagues. Though the data for the book are available online for free (www.slavevoyages.org), the repackaging of that data into 189 visually stunning maps and nine tables, complemented by some forty-two vignettes, has earned the creators of the Atlas a vast amount of praise and numerous awards. Like the human genome project, which focused on DNA sequencing through international collaboration and pooling of data, the Atlas is a testament to the value of collaborative effort, and book reviewers and endorsers have called it “monumental,” “marvelous,” “superb,” “sophisticated,” “erudite,” “groundbreaking,” and of “immeasurable value.” It is possible that the Atlas’s accolades, however, may inspire too much self-congratulation and not enough humility toward the human lives transformed into data sets. Both the genome project and the Atlas are based on decades of research, but both also have limitations. The genome project, for example, has identified most genes, but the sequencing is not fully understood; we know comparatively little about the full functions of their proteins, and the human genome of most individuals remains uniquely unmapped. The Atlas, likewise, has mapped the economic contours of transatlantic slaving using available data, but there is a great deal of missing data; it cannot account adequately for the first century of slaving or for the illicit and contraband commerce in African bodies around the so-called Atlantic world. More important, its arithmetic methodology cannot represent the lost potentials of African lives. The sense of finality suggested by the authors of the Atlas or their public relations team should not, therefore, be accepted unconditionally.
While searching online at the start of the new year, I came upon a blog maintained by a PhD history student at one of the University of California schools. Interested in Atlantic history and “slave ethnicity,” this student displayed an historiographical essay, probably written for a class, in which the future historian wrote, “Even more dogmatic are such scholars as Kwasi Konadu, who has argued that Coromantees were essentially the early modern precursors to modern Ghanaians, joined together by a ‘shared genetic culture.’” Curious, I emailed the student, who responded, “I meant to quote your phrase ‘shared (genetic) language.’ I have changed the quote, and I also rewrote the sentence to reflect that my opinions are coming from Rucker’s reading of your work.” Less an apology and more a confession, I briefly contemplated this student’s essay and response, and wondered, more broadly, if this is the kind of scholarship Atlantic history—and its stepchild, black Atlantic history—inspires, and to which it aspires. Rather than accept the received wisdom of the academic grapevine, I kept gossip and book reviews at a distance while I carefully read Walter Rucker’s Gold Coast Diasporas with the seriousness it deserved, making marginal notes from the acknowledgement to the bibliography during the spring semester. This book sets out to examine “the formation of the Gold Coast diaspora from the 1680s to the 1760s,” identifying “the early decades of the eighteenth century [as] a period when Coromantee and (A)mina ethnic groups formed in the Americas” from Akan, Gã, Adangme, and Ewe speakers originating in Africa’s Gold Coast (p. 23). Using sociologist Orlando Patterson’s well-worn notion of “social death” and historian Michael Gomez’s “ethnicity to race” paradigm, Rucker argues, “Gold Coast Africans reinvented, redefined, and transformed Gold Coast cultural materials and deployed them in unprecedented ways in the Americas,” informed by a “commoner consciousness” and new notions of masculinity and womanhood (p. 9). This review assesses the validity of Rucker’s case study through an examination of the sources used and the reading practices or interpretive techniques employed, and suggests some implications for African history/studies and diasporic African history/studies.