Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the Eighteenth Century. Edited by Vincent Carretta. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1996. xi, 387 pp. $42.95 cloth, $19.95 paper.
Three collections of the voices, sometimes written first-hand and sometimes dictated, of black men and women of the eighteenth-century Atlantic world present different, if complementary, accounts of the situation, experience, and importance of their subjects.
Africa Remembered: Narratives by West Africans from the Era of the Slave Trade, ed. Philip D. Curtin (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967), presents its ten subjects as extraordinary individuals who gained a European education or interested a European in transcribing the reminiscences of an African. Despite the recollections of the sufferings of the slave trade and slavery, and despite the necessity of appealing to European morality and imagination, Africa Remembered presents a progressive story central to West African history. Several voices in Africa Remembered are those of "representatives of the earliest generations of the modernizing elite that since remade Africa" (8). These voices provide what is often the earliest written record of a particular African society. Despite a filter imposed by writing for a European audience, such narratives contain information and insights all but impossible to find elsewhere.
Black Atlantic Writers of the Eighteenth Century: Living the New Exodus in England and the Americas, eds. Adam Potkay and Sandra Burr (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995), presents its four subjects as men for whom Christianity promised, first, freedom from bondage and sin and, second, a cosmopolitan, benevolent religious community without prejudice against blacks. Black Atlantic Writers implicitly exhibits a lost world of thought about race. It may be that for these black voices an eighteenth-century "age of exuberance" overpowered the "hell of colonial slavery" (5), but a similar conquest was not to be possible for nineteenth-century black writers. It may be that Christianity, particularly a Calvinistic variety, once seemed to complement the inherited faith of an African-born man, but this perception faded. Most important, it may be that early black writers were convinced that slavery would be terminated and equality achieved through an enactment of affection, benevolence, and sentiment, but abolition eventually came as an application of hyperindividualism. The "black Atlantic writers" seem important for their literary accomplishments and their place in the history of Christianity, not for their view of freedom, which was rooted in the eighteenth century, not in the era of abolition.
Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the Eighteenth Century, edited by Vincent Carretta, with sixteen subjects and about the same number of pages as Africa Remembered (forty percent more than Black Atlantic Writers), returns to the progressive model. Its selections and its editorial apparatus allow us to see the forward-facing elements in the thought of the black men and women who lived through the first abolitions of slavery by individual states, the beginning of public outcry over the cruelties of the slave trade, and the appearance of republican and commercialist ideas that could not in the long run be squared with slavery.
As the fullest selection of eighteenth-century black voices, Unchained Voices includes Briton Hammon, Jupiter Hammon, James Albert Ukasaw Gronniosaw, Phillis Wheatley, Francis Williams, Ignatius Sancho, John Marrant, Johnson Green, Belinda (an "African slave" in Massachusetts), Quobna Ottobah Cugoana, Olaudah Equiano, Benjamin Banneker, George Liele, David George, Boston King, and Venture Smith. Nine selections were first published in America, ten in England; the earliest dates from 1760, the last from 1798. Vincent Carretta provides an admirable introduction as well as what are probably among the best researched and most informative notes in black literary studies-for instance, three hundred thirty-three notes, spanning thirty pages, on Equiano's narrative. By way of contrast, the new Norton Anthology of African American Literature, eds. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Nellie Y. McKay (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), with different purposes, spends fifty-one pages on African American writing before 1800, including William L. Andrews's introduction to it.
Unchained Voices emphasizes the choice of national identity made by articulate blacks of the late eighteenth century. The success of the American Revolution, the large number of loyalist blacks, and the suggestion that new ways of thinking about nationality, both British and American, would include self-reflection on slavery and the slave trade led a number of New World blacks to choose to be either "Afro-British" or "African-American" (1). (As a paradigm, this choice that Carretta describes reappeared when African Americans decided to migrate to Sierra Leone, to Liberia, or to the North from the South.) Narrative, whether a personal tale like Equiano's or a sense of historical movement like Wheatley's, allowed these authors to understand their new national identities as a final stage in a chain of events centrally involving slavery.
In choosing a national identity over a local one (that of a particular colony or African society), many of these authors were led to grapple not only with their own experience as slaves, but also with the long history of slavery in various parts of the Atlantic world and, for the African-born, the normalcy of slavery in the homelands they remembered. Narrative made the understanding of slavery dynamic, allowing a recognition of its normalcy as well as of the postslavery future that seemed possible in the late eighteenth century.
Equiano's narrative, for instance, constructed an understanding of slavery that allowed blacks to understand what was happening to them as they became British: slavery was normal among the Niger Ibo since slaves deserved their captivity and were well treated and honestly bought and sold, but an outside market in the Americas led to an abusive system, while the true interest of Great Britain and its inhabitants like Equiano was commercial intercourse with Africans. Wheatley's poetry, for instance, set slavery in a providential flow of time culminating in American liberty: the evil of the slave traders and slave-holders was used by an overruling God not only to bring Africans into a Christian land, but also to exhibit the immorality of "Tyranny," which by 1775 Wheatley understood to include imperial governance of the rebellious colonies. In each case, slavery was normal, but, for the future, wrong. Choosing a nationality and understanding slavery as a dynamic process in history were, for this generation, essential parts of opposing the slave trade and slavery.
The truth probably appears in a synthesis of the material in Africa Remembered, Black Atlantic Writers, and Unchained Voices. Eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century black writings were far more of a final reckoning with a long history of slavery in Africa and the Americas than a prelude to antebellum abolitionism of Frederick Douglass's variety. Their religious sentiments were often conservative. They were, however, a prelude to the nineteenth-century and twentieth-century nationalism of the Atlantic world, a modernizing force that allowed the growth of a new and forceful abolitionism.
Unchained Voices should prove valuable in a number of situations. No other book would be as useful to students and researchers who are exploring black variations of early Anglo-American religion, social thought, and literary forms. No other book provides such a full view of black literary achievements before the antebellum period, even if the last work given here is Venture Smith's 1798 narrative. Finally, no other book, despite the fine editorial work of Curtin (with the help of eight colleagues) in Africa Remembered and Potkay and Burr in Black Atlantic Writers, comes close to identifying the people, places, events, and texts referred to by its subjects, ranging from African backgrounds, to European and American thought and literature, to current events like the Somerset case and the Zong case. Carretta's work here in placing his subjects in context should be invaluable in future scholarship in early Anglo-American black writing.
John Saillant, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Copyright University of North Carolina Press 1997
Unchained Voices and Black Atlantic Writers were also reviewed in Eighteenth-Century Studies, Volume 31, Number 2, Winter 1997--98: 239--246, by Wilfred D. Samuels.