The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South.
Moving beyond the generalities that have plagued historians' understanding of both African societies and African American history, Dylan C. Penningroth crafts a significant contribution to the literature on nineteenth-century black life in the United States. Fusing an African Studies approach with an innovative method for understanding the complexities of black families, communities, and social relations, Penningroth's Claims of Kinfolk is an excellent model for social historians to follow.
The author's central thesis is not only that African Americans owned property in informal, extralegal ways, but also that the very nature of their property ownership offers insight into intricate social relationships and overlapping kin networks. Penningroth attempts to redirect scholarship on black Americans from the traditional focus on black-white interaction, to an understanding of internal divisions that blacks in the nineteenth-century South created, and had to negotiate. Emphasizing property, Penningroth argues, is the best way of achieving that goal.
For some readers, the author's methodology for understanding that issue may be curious: the book begins not in the antebellum American South, but in Gold Coast, West Africa. Penningroth claims two reasons for analyzing postemancipation Gold Coast: first, the "remarkably similar circumstances" there and in the American South, particularly in the imposition of a formal law system following the demise of slavery; and second, "to look outside the assumptions and interpretive frameworks of American history" (p. 15). Emphasizing that both former Gold Coast slaves and former American slaves held similar views on family, community, and property, Penningroth offers the Gold Coast example for comparative value rather than for advancing an argument about African cultural "survivals." Nonetheless, in spite of the author's explicit attempt to move away from the African cultural "survival" scholarship, his main argument that "property was at the heart of African Americans' ideas about family and community" rings quite similar to much of that work. Implicitly, at least, Dylan Penningroth draws a picture of former slaves in Gold Coast centering property in their family and community relationships, and of former slaves in the United States doing the same; while the author rejects any attempt to connect African Americans' view of property, family, and community to their African ancestry and cultural heritages, he seems caught up in that type of language.
Following his discussion of Gold Coast, Penningroth shifts focus to the American South, where, he argues, slaves had developed a view toward property quite similar to that of their counterparts in western Africa. In Chapters Two and Three, Penningroth seems to be at his analytical best, as he adds important wrinkles and contours to historians' understanding of slaves' informal economy. Much more than just the savvy use of free time, this economy represented an acquisitive nature not unlike that of their masters; unlike their masters, however, African American slaves developed a rather communal sense of property. "An object became property," the author argues, "by being associated publicly with people. Each piece of property usually represented the labor and interests of several people, including the master" (p. 108). Using the rich records of the Southern Claims Commission and an inventive employment of the WPA slave narratives, Penningroth succeeds in showing his readers that slaves not only owned property, but conceived of it in fundamentally different ways than did whites. Describing slaves' property as being "enmeshed in several overlapping, sometimes competing, social relationships" (p. 108), the author infuses American historiography with a decidedly Africanist perspective, namely in emphasizing kinship as an organizing force in American slaves' informal economies and property ownership.
This relationship of family to property changed dramatically during Reconstruction. In the last three chapters of the book, the author explores how the imposition of a formal legal system disrupted, and largely ignored, these informal arrangements of property ownership that existed prior to emancipation. In addition to the predictable exploitation of former slaves by former masters, however, Penningroth shows that considerable tensions developed within those networks of kin and friends who had come to own property. After all, if a single object was owned by "overlapping, sometimes competing" social networks, how could the newly-imposed American legal system disentangle that web? Much like postemancipation Gold Coast, where British law failed to recognize similar arrangements of property--and therefore, social relationships--the Reconstruction South, ironically, tore down generations worth of property acquisition by African Americans. Most notably, as the author discusses in the final chapter, African Americans' reconstruction of property-owning networks under the new legal system often exposed, and even produced, serious internal tensions among them. A valuable insight by the author, this analysis explodes the dangerous, and all-too-typical depiction of African Americans being a unified community in the wake of emancipation. In short, without the Penningroth's careful depiction of the entangled, enmeshed networks prior to emancipation, the analytical payoff would not be nearly as important.
This well-researched, well-conceived, and well-written work is not without its flaws, however. In addition to the aforementioned fuzziness on the issue of "survivals," The Claims of Kinfolk possesses another important limitation: the author, while doing an admirable job of illustrating internal tensions within a particular African American network, at a particular time, and in a particular place, does not delineate any regional differences within African American society across the South. While he admits that there were regional differences, and cites anecdotal evidence to that effect in Chapter Two, Penningroth nonetheless leaves the distinct impression that all African American communities across the South operated in this fashion. This is particularly troublesome because the crux of Penningroth's evidence, records of the Southern Claims Commission, includes disproportionately substantial materials from Tennessee, Virginia, Alabama, and Georgia, while containing very few from places such as Louisiana, Texas, and South Carolina--precisely those places, because of immigration patterns and distinct institutions of slavery, where a slightly, or significantly, different understanding of property ownership might have developed. Though Pennignroth acknowledges this problem with the Claims Commission evidence, he nevertheless gives too little consideration for how location may have impacted the nature of property owning and social relationships in different regions of the South.
But even that limitation does not detract from a work that ought to alter the way historians conceive of African American property ownership. By infusing that understanding with an important perspective of Africanist historians, Dylan Penningroth succeeds in demonstrating the connections between such economic matters and social networks. As such, The Claims of Kinfolk is a significant work for historians of slavery, of African Americans, and of social history.
Kevin D. Roberts
New Mexico State University
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|Author:||Roberts, Kevin D.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2005|
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