The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South.
The Claims of Kinfolk: African American African American Multiculture A person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa. See Race. Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South. By Dylan C. Penningroth (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press The University of North Carolina Press (or UNC Press), founded in 1922, is a university press that is part of the University of North Carolina. External link
Moving beyond the generalities that have plagued historians' understanding of both African societies and African American history African American history is the portion of American history that specifically discusses the African American or Black American ethnic group in the United States. Most African Americans are the descendants of African slaves held in the United States from 1619 to 1865. , Dylan C. Penningroth crafts a significant contribution to the literature on nineteenth-century black life in the United States United States, officially United States of America, republic (2005 est. pop. 295,734,000), 3,539,227 sq mi (9,166,598 sq km), North America. The United States is the world's third largest country in population and the fourth largest country in area. . Fusing an African Studies African studies (also known as Africana studies) is the study of Africa, and can encompass such fields as social and economic development, politics, history, culture, sociology, anthropology or linguistics. A specialist in African studies is referred to as an Africanist. 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 ex·tra·le·gal
Not permitted or governed by law.
extra·le 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 West Africa
A region of western Africa between the Sahara Desert and the Gulf of Guinea. It was largely controlled by colonial powers until the 20th century.
West African adj. & n. . 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 wrinkles
See bells and whistles. 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 WPA: see Work Projects Administration.
in full Works Progress Administration later (1939–43) Work Projects Administration
U.S. work program for the unemployed. slave narratives slave narrative
Account of the life, or a major portion of the life, of a fugitive or former slave, either written or orally related by the slave himself or herself. , 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 en·mesh also im·mesh
tr.v. en·meshed, en·mesh·ing, en·mesh·es
To entangle, involve, or catch in or as if in a mesh. See Synonyms at catch. in several overlapping, sometimes competing, social relationships" (p. 108), the author infuses American historiography historiography
Writing of history, especially that based on the critical examination of sources and the synthesis of chosen particulars from those sources into a narrative that will stand the test of critical methods. 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 en·tan·gle
tr.v. en·tan·gled, en·tan·gling, en·tan·gles
1. To twist together or entwine into a confusing mass; snarl.
2. To complicate; confuse.
3. To involve in or as if in a tangle. , 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 anecdotal evidence,
n information obtained from personal accounts, examples, and observations. Usually not considered scientifically valid but may indicate areas for further investigation and research. 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 immigration, entrance of a person (an alien) into a new country for the purpose of establishing permanent residence. Motives for immigration, like those for migration generally, are often economic, although religious or political factors may be very important. 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 detract from
verb 1. lessen, reduce, diminish, lower, take away from, derogate, devaluate << OPPOSITE enhance
verb 2. a work that ought to alter the way historians conceive of Verb 1. conceive of - form a mental image of something that is not present or that is not the case; "Can you conceive of him as the president?"
envisage, ideate, imagine 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 New Mexico State University, at Las Cruces; land-grant and state supported; coeducational; chartered and opened 1889 as a college. It became New Mexico State Univ. of Engineering, Agriculture, and Science in 1958 and adopted its present name in 1960.