OVER THE PAST decade, perhaps the single most improtant phenomenon in American historiography has been the unprecedented attention given to Afro-American slavery. Historians, scholars, and serious followers of the American experience would all agree that few, if any, areas of the American past have aroused passions, generated arguments and debates, and created friction in the craft of history to the extent demonstrated by recent duties of slavery. The sheer volume of books on the subject heralded as "monumental." "groundbreaking," and "essential" are enough to make a good case for early sabbatical leave for historians of the Old South who simply want to stay abreast of the "significant" literature - and to prompt a waving of the white flag from those whose interest in slavery borders somewhere between the casual and the peripheral.
Simply stated, Black Odyssey by Columbia University historian Nathan Irvin Huggins is substantially less than a major book on slavery when considered only on the basis of research and originality. Written without footnotes - inexcusable and unacceptable to the historical profession - Huggins's book, at first glance, appears to be asking for trust from a profession whose only faith resides in the information following that little number normally found at the bottom of each page or at the end or each chapter.
But Black Odyssey is quite an important book because of its extraordinary success in synthesizing the major works on slavery to construct a portrait of the meaning, dilemma, and gross contradiction inherent in being made an Afro-American slave. From a purely literary perspective, this book is about as sensitively conceived, smoothly written, superbly paced an engaging in style as any produced by an historian in some years. In fact, so engrossing is it that to put it sown before a complete reading gives one the eerie feeling of having temporarfly fled the institution of slavery.
Huggins's attempt to "touch wherever possible the emotional and spiritual essence of (the slave) experience," when viewed in the context of traditional historical writing, represents a movement towards the soft qualities of grace, wit, imagination, daring, flair, passion and general stylistic innovation - all of which are rigidly frowned up by academicians in the name of detachment and objectivity. Accordingly, Black Odyssey signifies a major departure from the conventional descriptive and analytical exposition of standard historical works.
To begin, the book seeks to grasp and recapture the range of emotions, fear, insecurities and frustrations of the slave based on his African heritage, his enslavement in Africa and America, and his efforts to deal pragmatically with his incredible condition. Realizing that Africans who became slaves were from a variety of tribes with an accompanying variety of languages, customs and traditions. Huggins organizes their common ccharacteristies into an archetype of African life. The thrust here is to shjow that the Africans' concept of their worth as human beings was radically altered by the reality of the enslavement process. The African, as Huggins shows, was a person from a traditional and static system forcefully transfered to a society, "whose underlying principle was change. A collective person wrenched fom an intimate social context that gave a sense of self, he was thrust into one" which would "undermine as far as could be done those collective institutions - family and religion - that might serve as a substitute context." Never before had a people been so abruptly forced to relinquish their past; never before had a people been so compelled to adjust immediately ato their future.
The vividness and color with which Huggins writes brings the reader frighteningly close to the flesh and blood dimension of being a captured African aboard a slave ship. For those who sought to resist by refusing to eat, for example, the author writes that mechanizmz "would be inserted between the teeth . . . and screwed until their prongs widened, forcing the mouth to open so that food could be pushed in. Thus, the body could be made to stay alive, overruling the will to die."
One theme that runs throughout Black Odyssey is that blacks and whites were both strangers to the American continent - and as a result of the nature of their relationship, each adjusted to the other with the European becoming Africanized and the African becoming Europeanized. In the environment of the New World this blend "created an American culture and an American character."
Although Black Odyssey is based on the research of solid historians such as John Blassingame, Eugene Genovese, Leslie Owens, Herbert Gutman, Edmund Morgan, George Rawick, Ira Berlin and many others, Huggins, through his gracious, Fluid writing and keen sensitivity, breathes new life into much of this available knowledge on slavery. His discussions of the process by which Euro-Americans came to rationalize Adro-Americans as human beings but also as property, and the circumstances by which Euro-Americans came to view their own pursuit of freedom as tied to the unfreedom of Afro-Americans is clearly presented and graphically demonstrated. Huggins reduces numerous other complicated aspects of slavery to the essentials and organizes them effectively - from urban slavery, slave revolts and resistance on the one hand to slave religion, free blacks, and miscegenation on the other.
This book is by far the best synthesis of modern scholarship on slavery and should prove invaluable for those desiring a single volume which gives reasonable treatment to the many issues of slavery. Of course, any such study is destined to uneveness in certain areas and clear-cut weaknesses in others - but not nearly enough for Black Odyssey to be dismissed lightly. Stylistically Huggins's work is suigeneris and absolutely indispensable for the nonhistorian seeking a broader understanding of recent scholarship on slavery and it poses a challenge for all historians who seriouly desire to widen their reading audience.