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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 1 .


Exchanging our Country Marks
Michael A Gomez

Chapel Hill, NC.: University of North Carolina Press, 1998)
370pp. Index. Bibl. Hb.: 33.95; ISBN 0-8078-2387-2. 33.95.
Pb.: 14.50; 0-8078-4694-5.


The issue of African influence on the formation of African-American identity and culture is not only a subject for academic enquiry; it is also a politically important topic. The retrieval of the African past has been seen in recent decades as an important element in creating a more confident African-American identity, an identity which, like European-American ethnic identities, can identify with a real existing place and a distinctive cultural heritage rather than simply with 'race'.

The book begins with a chapter introducing the main themes of the book while the second chapter provides a short history of the slave trade. Three of the following four chapters deal with particular African regions while one of them deals with Muslim Africans who were taken into slavery in North America. The last chapters deal with language, class, and religion. The author devotes a lot of space in the chapters dealing with particular African regions to describing the politics, the ethnic make-up, and history of the main areas from which slaves were taken during the period of the slave trade. The great bulk of the detail is drawn from secondary sources. This in itself is an interesting and useful exercise. However, the attempts to link this material to the extensive work which has been done on the survival of African culture and religion in North America are not particularly successful. Exchanging our Country Marks aims to make an important contribution to the understanding of the importance of diverse African ethnic identities in contributing to a shared African-American identity. Much work has been done in this area in recent years and overall Exchanging our Country Marks does not seem to add a great deal to the existing work. The most important new primary source which the author makes use of are newspaper advertisements for runaway slaves. These are interesting in their specification of the ethnicity of slaves but are not used to great effect in tracing the influence or distribution of particular ethnic groups.

The question of the extent to which slaves from particular ethnic groups were concentrated or dispersed in particular areas of the US is an important area of enquiry where primary research could tell us much about the influence of particular ethnic groups in the formation of an early African-American identity. The author addresses this issue but does not seem to add much to the existing literature, either by way of primary research or analysis.

There is a fascinating topic at the heart of Exchanging our Country Marks; the question of how, under particular historical circumstances, people speaking a huge variety of languages, from dozens of different ethnic backgrounds, from places hundreds or thousands of miles apart, united only be the nebulous concept of race, could develop a new shared identity. In one sense the experience of African-American identity formation argues for the infinite dissolubility of ethnic group ties. The experience of African-Americans also reinforces the arguments that legal constructs such as 'race', employed by sovereign states, can play a powerful role in determining self-identification.


Niall O Dochartaigh, National University of Ireland - Galway



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