Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic by Erskine Clarke- 2007 - 627 Pages
Winner of The 2006 Bancroft Prize for American History
An Autoditactic Corner Selection
Essential Reading for all interested in slavery in America..
All teachers of American history should read this wonderful book
Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic is a magnifcient work of narrative nonfiction, depicting the lives of plantation owners as well as lives of their slaves, from 1805 to 1864 on the coastal Islands of Georgia.
Most of The slaves in this area, in Liberty County, had been taken in or had direct ancestory in what is now Sierra Leone. They spoke a language known as Gullah. The slave population way out numbered that of White plantation owners. This in itself allowed the slaves to bond and maintain much of their language and culture. Rice was a dominating crop in Sierra Leone and the swampy rain heavy area of the coastal Islands
was perfect for growing Rice. Rice made the planters rich and made slaves with Rice growing knowledge valuable.
It was fascintating to learn that slaves taught each other how to appear totally subservient and non-threatening to whites. At any moment a slave could be sold away from their family, parceled out when owners died. Women were subject to rape at will. Mixed children were considered black and were property. Many a plantation owner’s wife had to deal with what were obviously her husband’s children with a slave mistress.
Religion played a very big part in the lives of the planters. A common rationale for slavery was that it allowed pagan Africans to become Christians. There is extensive coverage on the development of the black church. Some planters knew slavery was contrary to the gospel of Jesus but they felt slaves, Africans, were just too primitive to rule themselves plus they did not want to relinquish their wealth. Black preachers had a lot of influence.
I learned a lot about the practices on the plantations, how they were managed. Slaves as time went on had a degree of freedom to work some land for themselves as well as to hunt and fish in the swamps.
I was fascinated especially by a chapter devoted to cuisine. My partarnal grandmother used to fix what she called “how cakes”, now I know where the name comes from. Anyone with roots in the South will be fascinated by rich details on food.
Clarke provides us lots of details on the Up-Stairs downstairs lives.
The start of The American Civil War (April 12, 1861 – May 9, 1865) totally destroyed the world of the plantations. Many White residences were burned after being ransacked by Northern troops. Clarke lets us see how this impacted slaves who knew little of life other than as a slave. Some felt loyalty to their old Masters, some killed them and burned The plantation houses. In one very powerful section i learned of How slaves gave themselves last names.
This is a beautiful book. The people come totally to life. The landscape is vividly articulated. We are there for a terrible hurricane. We are there when Sherman marches through Georgia.
I am so glad I read this book.
“Erskine Clarke is Professor Emeritus of American Religious History at Columbia Theological Seminary, where he taught from 1973 to 2008. He graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1963, received a Master of Divinity from Columbia Theological Seminary in 1966, and a PhD from Union Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 1970. Erskine is the author of several books on southern religious history, including Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic (Yale University Press, 2005), which won the prestigious Bancroft Prize from Columbia University, as well as GHS’s Bell Award for the best book in Georgia history; By the Rivers of Water: A Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Odyssey (Basic Books, 2013), and To Count Our Days: A History of Columbia Theological Seminary (University of South Carolina Press, 2019).” From The Georgia Historical Society