Sign up for Our Newsletter

Becoming African in America

Review by: Abigail L. Swingen, Texas Tech University

Sidbury, James, Becoming African in America: Race and Nation in the Early Black Atlantic, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

James Sidbury’s insightful book Becoming African in America explores the emergence of an “African” identity among “African-descended authors and activists living in England and America” during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (p. 6). Sidbury explores how the idea of “Africanness” expressed by influential black writers translated into action in the form of friendly societies, churches, Masonic societies, and groups that advocated emigration to Africa. Sidbury also chronicles the ultimate demise of self-identifying as “African,” especially among American blacks. Becoming African in America is an attempt to explain how and why this happened, and provides an important if necessarily partial contribution to our understanding of the Black Atlantic in the early modern era. 

Throughout the book, Sidbury distinguishes between “filiative” and “affiliative” identity. Filiative identity referred to “claims to a kind of ‘blood’ kinship,” with other people of African descent, whereas affiliative meant “a sense of allegiance that rested on oppression originating in slavery and the modern diaspora” (p. 27). Sidbury argues that the rise and eventual demise of “Africanness” sprang from the tensions between these two modes of self identification, as black people throughout the Atlantic world were forced to choose between embracing their shared mythical past as Africans or confronting their oppression in the Americas. In the first two chapters, Sidbury investigates the origins of an affiliative identity and the turn towards exploring a filiative one in the writings of eighteenth century black authors. In many ways these first two chapters are the book’s finest; Sidbury is at his best when explicating the nuances and complexities of the literature of the period. By investigating such authors as Ignatius Sancho, Phillis Wheatley, Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, and Olaudah Equiano, Sidbury convincingly reconstructs the foundations of African identity and its various meanings for eighteenth-century black writers in the Anglophone Atlantic world.

Connecting these relatively abstract ideas to actions, however, is a tricky business. The remainder of the book attempts to do just that, by exploring the various ways in which different groups envisioned Africa and understood their “Africanness.” Chapter three explores the experiences of North American free blacks in the two decades following the Revolutionary War. Separate black Baptist churches in the South, black Masonic organizations in Boston, and benevolent self-help societies around New England were established during the chaotic decades of the 1770s and 1780s. But because of the lack of clear evidence, such as preachers’ sermons, letters, or diaries, it is sometimes difficult if not impossible to tell what exactly these people articulated about being black or “African.” What is clear is that in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, a number of Black Loyalists left the southern United States for Nova Scotia. By the early 1790s, they found the racial discrimination they faced in Canada unbearable. Sidbury argues that the decision of black Nova Scotians to immigrate to West Africa was crucial to the evolution of their African identity. Chapter four explores the fascinating story of the black settler colony of Sierra Leone. Sidbury explores the colony’s origins beginning with the efforts of John Clarkson (brother of Thomas Clarkson), who had been hired by the Sierra Leone Company in London to recruit black settlers from Nova Scotia. Clarkson found over one thousand people willing to move in the hopes of spreading the Gospel and of obtaining land for future generations. The reality, of course, was somewhat messier. Each congregation had its own vision of what it hoped to accomplish in Africa. In addition, the entire group had ongoing problems with the company, which never provided enough land or provisions, and with the indigenous people of the area who were deeply wary of any outsiders settling nearby, even if the settlers were of African descent.

Sidbury contends that the colony in Sierra Leone kept the question of “Africanness” viablefor black Americans in the early nineteenth century. The remaining three chapters explore the forms these debates took in the new United States. Sidbury investigates the significance of the work of Paul Cuffe, a Quaker ship captain from Massachusetts who promoted the idea that Africans on both sides of the Atlantic should embrace a commercial vision of improvement. This would result in “creating a robust exchange of goods and people that could anchor black mercantile communities—and ultimately black fortunes—in American cities and on the coast of Africa” (p. 147). Cuffe’s efforts coincided with the formation of the new African Methodist Episcopal (AME) churches in Baltimore and Philadelphia. The story of the foundation of the AME churches is well-known, but placing the actions of such men as Richard Allen and Daniel Coker within a wider narrative of African identity formation shows their global significance

The years between 1812 and 1816 were incredibly significant in the evolution of Africanness. Things changed dramatically in 1816, however, with the formation of what would become the American Colonization Society (ACS) by some prominent whites, many of whom were slaveholders or had ties to slaveholding families. Although this group also advocated emigration of free blacks to Africa, it was fiercely opposed by many black communities. Whites organizing black emigration smacked of forced deportation, and many black Americans believed that the ACS was merely a scheme to remove free blacks in order to make slave owners more secure in their ownership of the black slaves. Although some chose to settle in the ACS colony of Liberia, in Sidbury’s telling the attitude of most black Americans towards emigration changed quickly in the 1820s and 1830s. Rather than continue to embrace their Africanness, an increasing number of black Americans began emphasizing their Americanness. Rather than focusing on emigrating to places where black Americans could best express their African identity, instead they “focused on where blacks could find the greatest individual opportunity—where they could best fulfill their dreams of living American lives” (p.197). This could mean Africa, but it could also mean Ohio.

Sidbury’s choice to end in 1830, while understandable, left me wondering about the specific ways that free (and presumably some enslaved) blacks articulated their American identity during the 1830s and 1840s. The epilogue on the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 is a helpful reminder of the injustices faced by free blacks throughout the country, and suggests that nineteenth-century nationalism played a key role in the development of modern African-American identity. I also wondered about the experiences of free blacks in Britain and whether or not a similar story of identity formation could be told. But finishing a book with some questions unanswered is invariably a good thing, and Sidbury’s contribution to scholarship on the Black Atlantic, not to mention the social and cultural history of the Early Republic, will be felt for some time.

This entry was posted in Book of the Month. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.