Dianne Swann-Wright. A Way Out of No Way: Claiming Family and Freedom in the New South. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2002. xiv + 195 pp. $49.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8139-2136-5; $17.50 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8139-2137-2.
Reviewed by Gavin J. Campbell (Graduate School of American Studies, Doshisha University, Kyoto, Japan)
Published on H-South (November, 2004)
Freedom at the Grassroots
This study seeks "admittance to the thoughts and mind-sets of the people who worked" in Buckingham County, Virginia in the period from 1865 to 1930 (p. 110). It does so by examining the numerous records, both written and oral, that county residents left behind. Divided into an introduction and six chapters, Dianne Swann-Wright's volume examines how blacks and whites struggled to shape the meaning of freedom in the post-emancipation South.
Though largely focused on the county's black residents, Swann-Wright's book begins by examining how prominent whites responded to the social and economic challenges they faced amidst a population of newly emancipated African Americans. Some, like the Old South patriarch Edward Trent Page, were swept away by a world transformed, seemingly incapable of unbending their inherited sense of dignity to mingle with the sharpies that were concluding deals with winks and whiskey. Page literally paid the price in the 1870s when he declared bankruptcy. Others, like the nouveaux riche merchant-turned-planter James Moore Newman, adjusted themselves by developing effective "patronage styles" (p. 19). Unlike Page, Newman successfully anticipated what his black workforce wanted in both service and goods, and in so doing established a kind of reciprocal relationship with the black laborers he so desperately needed. In short, white skins were a badge of authority in the post-emancipation South, but they were no guarantee of prosperity.
The second chapter delves into "what individuals felt and thought about each other and themselves," particularly in the context of labor (p. 45). Not surprisingly, whites like Page and Newman did not think or feel very highly about the blacks whom they employed, preferring to maintain a "wide social distance" (p. 47). But they were also keenly aware of the need to bend somewhat to accommodate the needs of their labor force. For their part, blacks largely adhered to the social codes whites insisted on, putting their energy instead into contesting humiliating and impoverishing labor relations. As Swann-Wright points out, black families continuously made disciplined economic decisions, always attempting to maximize their earning potential, maintain their dignity, and modify the more exploitative aspects of their working lives. So, for instance, one laborer named George Holman chose to attend a church fair and pay someone to replace him for a day rather than miss the exciting event. Similarly, he --not white employers--exercised control over where and for how long his son would work (pp. 56-58). These sorts of decisions would have been impossible under slavery and demonstrate the practical ways blacks claimed freedom in the New South.
Chapters 3 and 4 examine patterns of consumption. Looking at land purchases, Swann-Wright argues that blacks "wanted to hold land for its shared value and not exclusively for its material worth and benefit" (p. 72). That is, land ownership allowed blacks to pool their limited resources, the success of any one person benefiting a wider network. Thus, through land the freedpeople were "maintaining and controlling the fate of kin" (p. 73). Blacks also asserted their freedom through their consumer purchases. By procuring "needed goods from someone other than the landowners and employers," blacks took "one step away from slavery and economic dependence to their employers" (p. 99). Thus, whether through land or the articles of sustenance, blacks used their money and their credit to do something that during slavery they could never have done: choose for themselves.
The final two chapters focus on the power of stories. In the fifth chapter Swann-Wright reflects on a series of stories handed down through the generations, demonstrating how these tales passed on to the younger folk the community's values and lessons. She makes clear that, despite their specific purposes, collectively the stories "convey forward-thinking, never-give-up attitudes" (p. 126). The final chapter summarizes the book's major interpretive framework by looking at one person whose "life story brings all aspects of this community's eighteenth- and nineteenth-century experiences together" (p. 130). Ethel Beulah Woodson Bolden is a superb example of someone whose life might be otherwise dismissed as insignificant, but which takes on poetic grace when it is connected to the larger freedom struggle Swann-Wright has outlined throughout the book. From this simple life come together all the threads that had been woven in slavery and freedom, thereby providing the book a fitting summation.
A Way Out of No Way is concise, clear, sympathetic, and would make a useful undergraduate or graduate text. There are one stylistic and two interpretative snags, however, that I think limit the book's overall potential.
It is now rather common for authors to use first-person in the introduction and then to disappear behind the proscenium when the show begins. Unfortunately, the main feature is often consequently a let-down, and, alas, this book is no exception. In the preface and introduction, Swann-Wright offers a tender evocation of the Buckingham County world to which she has personal, familial connection. It is an effective and engaging piece of writing. But beginning with the first chapter, she abandons us to the care of a far less engaging tour guide who pummels us with long lists from account books, census records, and tax documents. The weight of dusty tomes and the evidence they secrete settles ominously over Swann-Wright's once-sprightly narrative. The details, and not the lives they recount, threaten to take over the book. Seemingly conscious of this, she uses the final two chapters to bring personalities and voices back into the narrative, but here she (or perhaps her editors) made an unfortunate decision to use the third person (for example writing of "a collection of stories told repeatedly to the gatherer over the full course of her life") that undermines the book's central premise: that scholars and their standard rhetorical styles are not the only way to reveal the past (p. 113).
At the interpretive level, I was unconvinced by Swann-Wright's repeated insistence that blacks had a "different way of owning" land than did whites (p. 72). Although she writes that "African Americans in this community wanted to hold land for its shared value and not exclusively for its material worth and benefit," she provides no evidence that whites in the county--especially those in similarly economically disadvantaged positions--did not use land in the same way (p. 72). In part, the problem is with ill-defined terms. The author set up "shared value" and "material worth and benefit," for example, as natural opposites when they need not be. More troubling is how she confuses different class ways of landholding with racial ones. Ironically, in the chapter on material consumption she points out several times that black patterns mirrored those of whites in similar circumstances, but does not apply this insight to the earlier material on landholding (e.g., pp. 98, 105, 106).
Finally, there are times when the analysis teeters precariously on the edge of sentimentality. Swann-Wright's is largely an affirming story of a cohesive, loving, family-oriented "caring community" who share love, laughter, and hard times (p. 65). The evidence continually points to "the agency people exercised to make their lives better" (p. 126). This does not seem like a particularly startling revelation, since we would assume that all people, regardless of race, or place, or time actively pursue ways of making their lives better. Moreover, Swann-Wright does not seem alive to the possibility of internal splits, schisms, or rivalries within the "caring community," although subterranean dissatisfactions make their appearance in several ancestral stories she recounts.
A Way Out of No Way gives voice to the silent and revivifies a time and place that, without Swann-Wright's caring attention, would languish in needless obscurity. She has reminded us again that it is also in the seemingly mundane details, rather than only in the grand political gestures, that blacks seized their freedom and crafted it to their own ambitions and needs.
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Gavin J. Campbell. Review of Swann-Wright, Dianne, A Way Out of No Way: Claiming Family and Freedom in the New South.
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