To Read Is to Fly

“To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries.” 
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By the Rivers of Water: A Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Odyssey - Erskine Clarke The Colonization Movement in the United States is an important stage in the history of slavery and American racism, but it often gets only a brief note in survey histories of the United States. The American Colonization Society, founded in 1816, promoted the founding of colonies in Western Africa, where freed African slaves and their descendants could live lives as free peoples, outside of the specter of slavery in the United States. This Society helped to send freed blacks to Western Africa, eventually founding Liberia in 1847.

Like so many aspects of American history, the story of the Colonization Movement is marked by deep veins of racism. Some abolitionists and clergy opposed slavery, but questioned whether freed slaves could live as productive, integrated, respected members in American society. And some proponents of slavery feared that the existence of any free African-Americans would undercut the institution of slavery, provoking much-feared slave rebellions and riots.

In By the Rivers of Water: A Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Odyssey beautifully and sensitively tells the story of the Colonization Movement, the deep divisions of racism in the US, and the complex beliefs of some white Southerners through the lives of John Leighton Wilson and his wife Jane Bayard Wilson. The Wilsons were born to slaveholding families in Georgia and South Carolina, but followed their religious beliefs to serve as Protestant missionaries in West Africa, arriving in 1834 and living and working there for 17 years, when poor health forced them to return to the United States.

Erskine Clarke writes in his introduction that his focus as a historian is not simply to record facts, but to hear and represent "individual voices" from many different cultures: Gullah slaves and members of Grebo and Mpongwe tribes; Presbyterian missionaries and colonial authorities; white slaveowners and abolitionists; and former friends from the North and the South divided by the anguished divisions of the US Civil War. And he succeeds brilliantly. Clarke utilizes anthropological and archaeological sources and perspectives, as well as delving into more traditional historical documents, especially letters written by John Leighton Wilson. He writes with sensitivity of the clash of religious and cultural beliefs as well-meaning missionaries confront and attempt to form relationships with members of different African tribes. He traces the conflicts among the settlers of these colonies, the missionaries, and the Grebo and Mpongwe peoples. And he tells about the Wilsons' experiences as they built up missions in Cape Palmas among the Grebo, and on the Gabon estuary among the Mpongwe.

Perhaps most impressive is Clarke's treatment of John Leighton Wilson, who emerges from this biography as a man whose beliefs represent some crucial conflicts of his time. He was opposed to slavery and took actions to free his slaves and his wife's slaves, but he supported the Confederacy during the Civil War. He supported freedom for slaves, but his characterizations of the African-American settlers and administrators of the colonies closest to his missions reveal his belief that blacks were, in the end, inferior to whites. Wilson undertook studies of various West African languages and took steps to understand Grebo and Mpongwe beliefs and the complexity of changing those beliefs, a more nuanced understanding than many Americans had at this time, but one in which he still privileged a specific Christian belief and culture as the only path for salvation and civilization for any person. Understanding Wilson helps us to understand how deeply racism was ingrained in 19th-century Americans. Clarke follows the Wilsons through their return to the US, through the American Civil War, and into Reconstruction. Their responses to these cataclysmic events and changes provide needed context for any understanding of the complex views on slavery held by some American Southerners.

Clarke's research is extensive, his writing is clear and, at times, beautiful, and his sensitivity to nuance is laudable. I highly recommend this book, which will be published by Basic Books on October 8, 2013, to readers with interests in biography, religious history, the history of American slavery and racism, and the US Civil War.

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