Ploughshares Into Swords: Race, Rebellion, and Identity in Gabriel's Virginia, 1730-1810.
This unpretentious book makes a whole series of wonderful contributions as it sets a famous event in a radically new perspective. James Sidbury shows how--in the divisive crisis brought on by the Jeffersonian Republican challenge to Federalist authoritarianism and to Adams's continued presidency--a slave blacksmith named Gabriel became leader of a wide-reaching conspiracy. His followers would seize the fast-growing new capital, Richmond. They would seize freedom--and perhaps the entire promised land of Virginia. The promise was initially given to a carefully recruited army, but after that it was extended to all--white and black--who would enter into the new order.
Sidbury begins with an apparently modest intention to use the surviving records to "open a window on the perceptions of people of African descent in Richmond at the turn of the nineteenth century" (p.1), rather than to tell the story of the conspiracy and its repression one more time. But readers who persist--and all are strongly urged to persist--will discover that the "window" is ambitiously designed not just to find a place for Gabriel Prosser in Thomas Jefferson's comparatively well-known Virginia but to give a view of Gabriel's world--the scarcely-known-at-all Virginia of an enslaved blacksmith and his kind.
Sidbury's work is thorough almost to a fault; but seeking an unfamiliar world in fragmentary records, all generated with hostile intent, the reader soon comes to appreciate this scrupulous thoroughness. Both parts of the two-part book carefully trace the emergence of the Black, White, and mixed communities in which Gabriel lived, boldly acted, and died. "Creative appropriation" is a key concept in a triad with "community" and "identity" for the cultural analyses of Part I. We follow the making of racialist colonial society and the upheavals that rendered it--in the Whites' self image-- "one of the freest republics on earth;" at the same time we see that there had been called forth a strong culture of slave resistances. Sidbury uses minute examination of the evidence brought against the conspirators on trial to demonstrate an emergent identity of "Black Virginians" (p.vii). Though sensitive to African communalistic continuities, Sidbury shows how much there had been "creative appropriation" of White Virginian s' individualistic legal, political, and evangelical religious modes. In a specially impressive chapter, Sidbury labors to make sense of the informers who betrayed the conspiracy before it could launch into action. He notes that they acted so late as to give the conspirators some chance of succeeding had not a violent storm cut the roads. The study of the informers is used to trace the ambiguities deeply inherent in the co-existence of communal and individualistic value-systems in Virginia. It traces also the opportunities for individual self-betterment that were offered slaves within the same commercializing process that called forth both the conspirators' aspirations and their sense of opportunity.
In Part II--"Social Practice"--we follow the rise of a fickle, polymorphous segregated/non-segregated commercial world in fast-growing Richmond town. The forms of employment and the conditions of work are again minutely explored. Court records enable Sidbury to elucidate emergent structures from heart rending cases where disputes and jury verdicts, subtly interpreted, yield great insight into harsh but inconsistent norms operating both between and within the racial groups and across the dividing lines of gender, class, and race. There is indeed a very fine chapter showing the marked gender divisions prevailing in the Black communities in the face of White assumptions that slave women (of whom they demanded heavy physical labor) were scarcely to be differentiated, being "as ferocious and formidable as the males" (p.220).
The two parts of the analysis and presentation of this work both contribute strongly to its author's impressive determination to deal with mixed forms. There is no pseudo-anthropological insistence on isolating some 'pure' cultural original; we are continually engaged with the mergings made by a hundred years and more of the strenuously negotiated interaction between traditons that was and is Atlantic-World society.
There will be much questioning of Sidbury's interpretations. Does he do justice to the intensity of the crisis in the White republican polity that gave Gabriel and his associates their sense of opportunity, perhaps revealing to them 'signs of the times'? Might he have embarked on a cross-cultural exploration of the meanings of the shared liquor-taking that was so important both to the bonding of the conspiracy and to the 'disorderly' forms of social life on the Richmond wharves? (But then he would surely have been going alone into an investigation of the religious-social dionysiac forms associated with liquor that are long overdue for systematic treatment by sociologists, anthropologists, and historians.) Does he go too far in asserting (against the judgment of important researchers before him) that the conspirators were inspired by a religious apocalyptic world-view? Or not far enough? Ought more to be made of the names? The leader, Gabriel, was also called Daniel; and the principal slave informer who under took to thwart the intended Exodus was named--wait for it--Pharoah!
But I shall not end this review with challenging questions; rather I shall conclude by drawing attention to yet another of the strong contributions Sidbury's book makes to the ways we should think about and enquire into such momentous clash-of-systems episodes as Gabriel's conspiracy. With real insight Sidbury assumes that community, identity, and cultural appropriation ultimately entail crucial forms of "historical consciousness" or implied narratives of what Virginia had been, was, and might be. He discovers Gabriel's conspiracy in historic time not only by tracing origins but also by following the altered historical consciousnesses that it has produced. We are shown this in white men's narrations, from Governor Monroe's report onwards; and we get to sense it in the oral traditions of Blacks, traced through to the twentieth century. Finally we are brought to a coming together of the oral traditions with a newly assertive African American literary culture--Arno Bontemps' accessing of the written sources of the White accounts for his 1936 activist novel, Black Thunder. Thence we come to our present moment as readers participating in the words crowding onto the pages of this latest history.
Here, then, is a history that powerfully connects problematic past to problemetic present.
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2000|
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