economic history, eurasian history, history, history of asia, history of capitalism, history of europe, history of the united states, History of the US, Uncategorized, world history

Book Review: Kenneth Pomeranz,The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton University Press, 2001), Pp. 392.

 

book.jpgHistorian Kenneth Pomeranz sets out to argue a counterargument to the old linear narrative of history and especially European “excellence.” Pomeranz offers a revisionist history in his book entitled, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. Pomeranz’s thesis states, “This book…acknowledges the vital role of internally driven European growth but emphasizes how similar those processes were to processes at work elsewhere, especially in east Asia, until almost 1800 ” (3). Pomeranz finds comparative methodology more productive than delineated differences in the historical record. Taking major themes of difference and finding counter comparisons is ultimately how Pomeranz discuses in this truly world historical narratives.

The first concepts that Pomeranz discusses, and pushes back on, is this idea of perception in terms of European excellence and the reality of Asia’s equality of excellence. For example perceptions about life expectancy, birthrate/death rates, markets, and technology all become sites of similarity rather than differences in the history of both these regions (32-68). Pomeranz reviews the technology arguments of European “excellence” stating, “In many areas, various non-European societies remained ahead. Irrigation which we have already mentioned, was perhaps the most obvious; and in many other agricultural technologies, too, Europe lagged behind China, India, Japan, and parts of Southeast Asia” (45).  Ultimately, Pomeranz goes about his findings by debunking narratives of European “excellence” into a narrative of European and Asian connection.

The second argument, Pomeranz debates is the idea of  notions of Europe having “special” institutions. Pomeranz states, “Far from being unique, then, the most developed parts of western Europe seem to have shared crucial economic features—commercialization, commodification of goods, land and labor, market-driven growth and adjustment by households of both fertility and labor allocation to economic trends—with other densely populated core areas in Eurasia” (107).  Again there are more comparable historical realities than difference in the narrative of world history. Pomeranz also discusses this in comparing economic realities stating, “Europe did not stand out form China and Japan…Thus, at least so far, we would seem to have similar conditions in these three societies for the emergence of the new kinds of firms that we generally think of as ‘capitalist’” (165). Again, Pomeranz draws upon the similarities of capitalism between countries rather than the played out Eurocentric narratives of capitalism being a distinct feature or derivative of Europe.

The last unit of analysis for Pomeraz is the ecological and industrial side of the historical narratives. Pomeranz states, “It was through creating the preconditions for those flows [‘New World resources’] that European capitalism and military fiscalism—as par of a larger global conjuncture—really mattered” (207).  This stream of resource accumulation is discussed in terms of “shared constraints” by both Asia and Europe (211).  An example of one of these shared constraints is deforestation. Pomeranz discusses the similarities in the ecological arguments of difference; stating, “China’s problems with forest cover and fuel supply were more serious, but probably not as bad as we often think, and—surprisingly—not clearly worse than those of western Europe”(227). This narrative debunks old notions of unique attributes given to Europe.

One critique that I did have was in the limited regions Pomeranz focuses on in the historical narrative he offers. Although Pomeranz does try to discuss different regions of Asia and Europe, he is still stuck in the Europe vs Asia binary of world history story.  Overall, positives out weigh the negatives in this historical offering.  Pomeranz drives home his main point in the end of his monograph asserting, “History is never as neat as the chimpanzee/human case…Instead, we have statements of rough similarity, or of advantages that seem closely tied to some off-setting disadvantage” (280). Moreover, I would suggest this more exhaustive and inclusive historical narrative to historians and anyone who is tired of the same old Eurocentric narratives.

10/10

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economic history, eurasian history, history, history of asia, history of capitalism, history of europe, history of the united states, Uncategorized, world history

Book Review: Andre Gunder Frank, ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age (Berkeley: University of California Press), Pp. 416.

Narratives about world history have been riddled with complication, debate, and imbalance. Some historians have decided to take a European centered approach, known as Eurocentrism. This approach has been noted, and is agreed upon by many scholars, as extremely problematic. Are their alternative way to write or discuss world history? This weeks author, Andre Gunder Frank discusses and offers an alternative to this complicated debate. In Franks book entitled, ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age, there is a major change in the world history narrative. Frank takes old narratives, Eurocentric approachs, and uses a different approach entirely which “instead works from the whole world inward” (51). This can be understood as taking the entire historical normative, static, and flattened world history narrative and repositioning the center as Asia; refashioning the narrative “which is thereby turned on its head” (51). This advent takes on a different focal point, in which Europe is exposed as behind not forward in the advances of the times.

Frank takes on the narrative project of world history by not only starting with Asia as center but also by pointing out the faulty foundation of European expansionism. Frank states, “It is completely counterfactual and antihistorical to claim that…. ‘Europe built a world around itself.’ It did not; it used its American money to buy itself a ticket on the Asian train” (xxiv-xxv). One of the authors central points is in highlighting European’s access into Asian market economy. By doing this, Frank shows how Asia really was interested in one commodity in particular—silver. Frank states, “Asians would buy nothing else from Europe other than the silver it got out of its colonies in the Americas” (134). This was the in for European market economy. This was particularly true in 1492 and 1498. Frank notices the gain in access from Europeans to Asian markets via American silver gave access to Europe becoming a major player (59). But one may ask why silver? If silver is the major commodity that shifts the market, why and how does this happen in the first place? Frank explains by situating the importance of coin vs paper economics  in the Ming dynasty. Frank discusses the important element of supply and demand stating, “Chinese public demand for silver and the large size and productivity of the Chinese economy and its consequent export surplus generated a huge demand for, and increase in the price of, silver worldwide” (112). This shifting importance drove to major contributing factor in supply and demand within the market. Europe had an in (silver)  and this would now be their one commodity that they could sell and also gain a position in the global economy. Before that Europe wasn’t even a main player in the global economy and certainly not among Asian markets.

This analysis that Frank gives highlights Europe’s weakness. Frank asserts this notion stating, “That it may have been the other way around, that maybe it was the world that made Europe” (3). Europe had no special or innate characteristic in their historical relevance. Frank drives home this point stating, “Despite their access to American money to buy themselves into the world economy in Asia, for the three centuries after 1500 the Europeans still remained a small player” (185). Frank ultimately wants to challenge and highlight  a “temporary” situation (258). By relying on a more inclusive approach to historical analyses by critiquing the binary of traditional vs modern Frank, most interestingly, tries to answer the question on how and why Europe got into a position of power.  Frank states, “Why the West won (temporarily)…One answer is that the Asians were weakened, and the other answer is that the Europeans were strengthened” (258). Frank asserts one of the reasons of “growing economic and political strains in Asia” (267). This may have put Asia at a disadvantage when delegating world power and domination in the world economy. Fusion of economic and political structure was critical to the shift in Asia to European power relations. Frank states, “Economic advantage of Asia between 1400 and 1800 may have been turned to its own disadvantage and to the advantage instead of the West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” (259). This is accounted for in the events of the Chinese opium trade. Frank asserts, “In China, rapid economic dislocation occurred only in the early nineteenth century, via the opium trade and its bullion drain of silver out of China, which destabilized the entire economic system” (274).

Frank concludes his book driving home his point that Europe didn’t hold any particular advantage to the rest of the world. Frank states, “The Europeans had no exceptional, let alone superior, ethnic, rational, organizational, or spirt-of-capitalist advantages to offer, diffuse, or do anything else in Asia” (283). This alternative narrative that Frank offers is directly critiquing Eurocentric or diffusionist approach that many historians have taken when discussing world history. One of the most sought after explanations in European dominance is the technological advances arguments. Frank goes after this argument by stating, “These technological developments of the industrial revolution should not be regarded as only European achievements. Instead, they must be understood more properly as wolf developments whose spatial locus moved to and through the West at the time after having long moved about the East” (285). Movement rather than an intrinsic or special attribute of Europe is Franks focus. Franks final conclusion, or even seen as a prediction, asserts, “Therefore, it is conceivable that the West and the East will again trade places in the global economy and in world society in the not to distant and already dimly foreseeable future” (320). Taking world history on a route in tracking the historical direction, center, and re-shiftings in the future is an alternative offering in world history. Alternative narratives of world history add to a more expansive and conclusive rendering of the past, present, and provokes intrigue into the future historical possibilities. I would suggest all historians expose themselves to this monograph as well as anyone who wants a reference to argue against problematic diffusionist and Eurocentric narratives.

 

 

 

10/10

history, history of africa, history of capitalism, history of europe, history of nature and science, history of race, history of the united states, neoliberalism, science and technology, socio-historical, Uncategorized, world history

Book Review: Sidney W. Mintz entitled, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin Publishing, 1985), Pp. 274

book .jpg Sidney Mintz takes an anthropological approach to discuss the rise of economic gains of the production and consumption of sugar. An important component of this economic feature is in the labor that is used in the manufacturing of sugar. Mintz ultimately tracks “the ways power was exercised” by following the development of one commodity—sugar (xvi). Sugar became a status symbol of “wealthy, power, and status…by eating these strange symbols of his power” (90). This commodity becomes a marker and is a cite that anthropologists and historians can use to locate conceptions and legacies of power, labor, and goods. Mintz states, “Sugar began as luxuries, and as such embodied the social positions of the wealthy and powerful” (140). The author identifies a sociological aspect to the history of sugar as well as a physiological, environmental, cultural and economic  factors that drove this commodity to be purchased and desired.

Sociological: The sociological side for this increased desire for sugar may have been a status or class privilege ambition. Mintz also argues there is also another component to the desire for copious amounts of sugar.

Physiological: The component of a physiological side to this desire and consumption of sugars. Mintz discusses that sweetness would have been known to our primate ancestors and to early human beings in berries, fruit, and honey” (16).

Environmental: This is important in understanding some of the environmental factors in sugar consumption. But what seems to be more profound is the cultural or constructed side of the history of sugar.

Cultural:The definition of culture for Mintz is asserted as, “Culture must be understood ‘not simply as a product but also as production, not simply as socially constituted but also as socially constituting’” (14).

Economic:  Labor and economics of sugar have a deep and significant history that Mintz documents.  It has been asserted by Mintz that, “Using imported slaves—perhaps Europe’s biggest single external contribution to its own economic growth” (55). With the manipulation of labor and creating situations in which labor would become slave labor led to the increase of exploiting resources, labor, and commodities by Europeans.  Mintz discusses this by stating, “Slaves and forced labors, unlike free workers, have nothing to sell, not even their labor; instead, they have themselves been bought and sold and traded” (57). Mintz illuminates the cruel reality of Europe’s commodity history. Commodity of bodies and sugar in concert with one another provided an exotic component to how individuals who labored and those who purchased sugar were positioned. This text provides a inter-disciplined narrative on the history of one commodity and its affects on the world. This is a text anyone could read!

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10/10

history, history of africa, history of identity, history of language, socio-historical, Uncategorized, world history

📚 Book Review: Mark Horton & John Middleton. The Swahili: The Social Landscape Of A Mercantile Society. Sample City: Eastern Africa. Publisher: Blackwell Publisher Inc. Year: 2000. Pages: 282.

 

 Horton and Middleton discuss the history of identity and location in their text entitled, The Swahili: The Social Landscape Of A Mercantile Society. These author articulate the history of identity by focusing solely on the Swahili society. Although these authors are not writing this text as a historical narrative it becomes a narrative of Swahilian history. The authors do this by taking a “‘Swahilicentric’ and not ‘Eurocentric’ approach” (p.3). This becomes the methodology that drives this text and offers the current Indian Ocean and African historiography a more micro-history on identity. 

Horton and Middleton go about this text in breaking down major elements of  Swahili society and culture. The starting point is considering the Swahili people as a kind of nomadic folk, thus, creating a large historical footprint. This micro-history becomes a macro-historical narrative. The reader is lead down a path of chronology that includes the location and settlements that were involved in imports and exports of commodities. Trade becomes not as central in the discussion of long term historical relevance of the Swahili societies of today. I do critique the book for its misleading title. The title does lead the reader to think there is much more importance place on “mercantile” or trade elements in this history than actually is in the text. 

Interestingly, Swahilian language becomes another main theme in the identification and historical legend of the Swahili society. The authors state, “the Swahili are no longer a mercantile society of any importance; but their language has become a lingua franca of most of eastern Africa and beyond”(p.14). This is key to the work this book does in the account of Swahili history but as well as the discourse around Swahili identity.

In full this book is broken down into key aspects of Swahili history such as but not excluded to: the importance of Islamic theology, the interconnection of trade across the Indian Ocean, the topography, trade, and the legacy of diaspora. The bookends of this research, start and end with the key argument around identity. Within this central topic of identification, a critique can be made in regards to the pitfalls of reproductions of the Eurocentric narrative. This leaves the reader with a misnomer of agency and power that the Swahili society actually hold in history. Unfortunately, this undermines the central themes of this book. 

Overall,  Merton and Middleton’s text is easy to ready and does a enormous task of highlighting many elements of societal history of the Swahili people. The use of intersectional frameworks brings about a robust account of the past and present. This is identified in the Introduction of the book stating, “to write a history of this people with themselves at the centre we have tried to listen to and understand Swahili ideas of their own society as determined by their own view of the past…all these versions of history are central parts of present knowledge” (p.3).  This is a valued approach in writing histories. This text can be noted as a extensive, thorough, and easy to read socio-historical text that includes the past and present of a complex people and their endowment of language that inhabits most of Africa. 

9/10

folklore, history, history of europe, history of nature and science, science and technology, Uncategorized, world history

Book Review: Peter Mancall, Nature and Culture in the Early Modern Atlantic (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), Pp. 197.

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Much has been said by historians and scientists about the history of knowledge production in the United States and how that knowledge relates to the world at large. But most of those documents, that have something to say, are usually that of colonial rule. For Peter Mancall this isn’t necessarily the case. Mancall calls upon a plethora of differential source material. Using not only what he notes as “traditional sources,” but he also uses visual and oral histories as well (x). In doing so Mancall sets out to discuss “humans and nature in the sixteenth-century Atlantic basin” in a nuanced way (ix).  Mancall is arguing for an expansive more epistemological framework, within analysis, history, and knowledge production of the Atlantic basin in the sixteenth-century. Furthermore, Mancall looks at motivations and contextual circumstances to illustrate intentions for knowledge production in the first place. Using plenty of differing sources Mancall notes that economic, political, and technological motivations drove knowledge within the sixteenth-century to be constructed in a very particular way (xii). Methodologically, Mancall calls upon many different sources. Working a bit backwards, in favor of discussing methodology, the section entitled “Notes On Sources” discusses particularly how and why historians can use a more intersectional approach in utilizing sources. Mancall states, “The chapters in this book focus not on brad environmental changes but instead on specific relationships between nature and culture in the sixteenth-century Atlantic basin…[revealing] there was not a single moment of transition but instead myriad encounters” (140).

Chapter one entitled, “The Boundaries of Nature,” discusses “monsters.” What constituted a monster? What made a monster real rather than fake? Mancall notes monsters “were part of the real world, even if they were invisible or existed only in the stories told from an alleged eyewitness to credulous listeners” (6).  Mancall unearths the legacy of knowledge on monster in the region of Fréjus. It is here where the stories of monsters come to be. Out of painted panels Mancall notes, “Many panels feature iconography common across the continents in the late Middle Ages…A whole catalog of exotic beasts roamed above the heads of late medieval congregants” (7).  Dragons and mythical beasts were just some of the painted monstrosities on these panels that aided in a knowledge of non-human nature. Mancall discusses the influence of Mandevill’s work. In the fourteenth-century, Mandevill’s writing on monsters not only spread across Europe but one person in particular grabbed ahold of it…Christopher Columbus. Mancall speculates if Columbus may have been moved to write about monsters and men due to the exposure of  Mandevill’s work (13).  With literature, travel guides, and scientists in Europe producing the discourse of monsters it is safe to say that the New World was not the only place with supernatural understandings.

Just like the New World the Old World had their own set of monsters, but each place had their own relationship with “monsters.” Mancall notes, “While Europeans tried to understand monsters and demons in their own communities…Americans were not obviously concerned with how monstrous entities came to be” (27).  The obsession to know and control seemed relegated to the European documentation of monsters and demons. For Mancall, the Native communities possessed more knowledge to grow and work towards incorporating the spirit and material worlds. For example, Mancall discusses the Mandan cosmology in relation to North American beliefs about spirituality and the supernatural (29). Cosmology of the spirit world created the landscape and aided in explanations on ecology. Mancall does note, briefly, the stereotype of the Native environmentalist troupe, by discussing more of the “good relations with the deities” that Natives wanted to have for their own economic gains rather than the “conservationists” stereotypes that have become relegated to the Native body. Very similarly Europeans wanted to understand monsters to conquer or dispel them just as much as Natives wanted to understand the spirit world to avoid disrespecting and gain relations to it.

Chapter two entitled, “A New Ecology,” discusses the ways in which cartography aided in mobilizing knowledge production and depicted the ways in which maps “provide clues about the new ecology of the sixteenth-century Atlantic basin” (47).  Mancall discusses the ways in which map making was infused with not only the map makers ideas but also the political climate of the map makers time. This is the problematic feature of maps for Mancall. This theme also highlights the historical aspect of anxieties that played a part in European expansionist projects. Mancall states, “Maps, then, reflected their makers’ understanding of what they knew and imaginary depictions of what they did not. They also revealed what was important to their patrons” (55).  “Bountiful” is one of the narratives that comes out of the storytelling attributes of the map. Another narrative is the theological aspects and the stakes of body and soul saving. This is particularly true of the Spanish exploration and “conquest.” But for Europeans, Mancall notes, the New World was much more interested in projects of knowing, exploring, acquiring, and owning. This is indicative of a picture, that Mancall calls upon, wherein a man on a boat is in a body of water. The scene is portrayed as a bountiful and cornucopia of different fish in the waters around them and are all ripe for captured on his boat for a plentiful harvest (62). These illustrative narratives provided specific narratives about the New World to the Old world. This narrative was major theme at the heart of many of these map making motivations. The idea of the utopian landscape of abundance and bounty had to mobilize itself and what better way then maps.

Chapter Three entitled, “The Landscape of History,” notes the mass migration across the Atlantic Ocean from 1492-1600 (85).  This was impart to Europeans thinking that they had divine rights over the Americas. The example of John Winthrop illuminates this point in full. Mancall states, “English Puritan John Winthrop, shortly before sailing across the ocean where he would become the governor of Massachusetts, argued that the English has a legitimate right to settle where Natives lived” (86).  This claim to “legitimacy” would become the main argument for not only exploration and migration but as well as settlement and civilization. This is the start of European entitlement, for Mancall, not only for land but of people, nature, and knowledge. This chapter discusses more of the critical analysis in why Theodor de Bry depicted Natives and the Americas differently. The European gaze fell onto the objects with fascination and the spectacle in de By’s engravings read—bountiful/abundant. Mancall discusses this at length in the critique of the image labeled, “The manner of their fishing,” in which more of everything was added to add to the fantastical pictorial narrative of abundance. Mancall states, “Each revision of the images by de Bry’s workshop constituted a manipulation of the eyewitness visual information about coastal Carolina” (101).  What is clearly problematic is the natural history of the Americas and its representation. These images became more important than the authors realized. They would be representative “picture[s] of a haunted place whose inhabitants would soon succumb to the invisible bullets of European newcomers” (119).

Lastly the postscript entitled, “The Theater of Insects” discusses the English naturalist and physician Thomas Moffet’s work. This last section, of Mancalls monograph, discussed the importance of Moffet’s work as “spectacle” and its interpretations (121).  This work is important because it signified knowledge that was directed at specific peoples. Moffet’s book is written in Latin, originally, and was for European scholars. But the performative piece is much more interesting in the analysis of Moffet’s work by Mancall. Mancall discusses the ways in which nature is personified to have its own class and culture. For example the perforative element of transformation, or more specifically metamorphosis, becomes representative of  narratives in the possibilities of nature. Mancall discusses this by articulating on the ways metal becomes a vessel of these narratives (126).  Mancall demonstrates how Moffet’s work tantalizes the European mind towards explorative narratives of progress and expansion by way of science and discovery. In this way, insects would become linked not to monsters but to divinity. This brings Mancalls premies of this monograph full circle.  Mancall notes the ways in which “insects revealed the wondrous powers and infinite potential of God” for Moffet (128).  Insects would become economic producers in this sense and have their own labor to Europeans. This short but provocative narrative, on the illustrative powers of sixteenth-century work in the Atlantic basin, showcases the ways in which not only travel logs promoted ideology but so did pictures. Mancall also highlights how nature and humans were now in a state of hierarchy and categorical control by the ideological and pictorial construction.  Mancall brings up many interesting points that others have not in the field or history: science and nature. By illuminating different motivations and interpretations of nature, such as the “Theater of Insects” by Moffet, Mancall added a little something extra to the historiography on science and nature! I would recommend this to historians, scientists, and those interested in the transformation of fantastical narratives.

10/10

american literature, feminist studies, history, history of the united states, History of the US, humanism, Inspiration, short story, Uncategorized, women and gender studies, world history

Book Review: Velma Wallis, “Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival (Harper Perennial, 1994), Pp. 128.

old ladies .jpg

 

Forgiveness…Patience…Unconditional Love…. These are all the themes Wallis brings forth through this remarkable tale of two women. What I want to do in this book review is give brief highlights of each chapter and then give my recommendations!

About the Author, Velma Wallis: “born in 1960 in Fort Yukon,  remote village of about 650 people in interior Alaska…Wallis later moved to her father’s trapping cabin, a twelve-mile walk from the village. She lived alone there intermittently for a dozen years, learning traditional skills of hunting and trapping…” (128). This story is a tale her mother told her that she has added some of her own flavor too.

Introduction: In the intro. Velma Wallis is recounting how she came upon the story of the two old women. In Alaska, where she is from, her family had a story that had been pasted down from generation to generation. Wallis states, “This story of the two old women is from a time long before the arrival of the Western culture, and has been handed down from generation to generation, from person to person, to my mother, and then to me…This story told me that there is no limit to one’s ability—certainly not age— to accomplish in life what one must” (xvii).

Chapter One: In chapter one were learn of a band of Native Americans in Alaska that are suffering from starvation and a harsh winter. Wallis refers to these people as “nomads were The People of the arctic region of Alaska” (1). In this band there were two old women who were basically taken care of by members in the band.  These two characters are the main characters of the story.  Ultimately, the band decides to leave the women behind, due to the lack of starvation and devastating winter conditions— they felt it was best for the band. So they decided to leave the elderly. The two women were heartbroken and in shock.

Chapter Two:  In chapter two the women are hopeful at least to give it their all to live rather than to sit and die. not trying at all. Tenacity and perseverance are other themes that permeate this story. The strength of these women is were the story begins to head.

Chapter Three: Chapter three thus becomes about mobility and creating a counter narrative that involves persistence and women working together to overcome obstacles and survive.  This narrative of women helping women to rise up and not giving up on one another is a contradictory narrative to Eurocentrism, deterministic and individualist narratives that are so common in history.

Chapter Four: The two old women make it to their destination and remember when they were younger how old women were left behind. By persisting, these two old women were breaking the chain of being left to die and dying they were surviving. Wallis writes, “the hunting skills they learned in their youth reemerged and each day the women would walk farther from the shelter to set their rabbit snares…” (63). The way that these women survived was by remembering how to take care of themselves—they were not hopeless even though The People had deemed them to be.

Chapter 5: Chapter five the two women begin to create their own society and new way of life but there was still something missing. The author writes, “soon the women fell into a daily routine of collecting wood, checking rabbit snares, and melting snow for water. They sat evenings by the campfire, keeping each other company” (83). But even so they were growing lonely…

Chapter 6: At this point The People are still struggling and did not transcend from a place of surviving to thriving. Instead they are struggling and turn back to the place where they had abandon the two old women (85). Wallis states, “The People were suffering, and this winter found them on the verge of hopelessness” (86).  As they returned to the place where they had left the old women the chief notices that something is off, so he sends someone to check and look around for the old women. The birch tree had strips off of the trees and this lent a clue to The People that there was someone, maybe another band, but regardless there was someone else out there (90).

Chapter 7: The two old women hear their names being called and decide to stand ready to be found. They are afraid of The People now but know they will be found. What becomes blatantly clear at this point in the tale is the themes of  transformation and strength. The two women, coming from a place of rejection, are now re-envisioned. Understandably, both the women are apprehensive of The People coming and finding them and taking all their took.  They set boundaries and limits to being discovered and how they now felt about their band. 

Chapter 8: The final chapter deals with respect. Wallis writes, “in this time of hardship the news of their [the two old women] survival filled the band with a sense of hope and awe” (112).  They are not just some old women. They are survivors and individuals to look up to and respect. “The People had thought themselves to be strong, yet they had been weak. And the two old ones whom they thought to be the most helpless and useless had proven themselves to be strong” (115). This speaks volumes to the way society not only sees elderly persons but women also.  This tale re-writes that narrative. Wallis states, “after everyone had been reunited, the chief appointed the two women to honorary positions within the band…they enjoyed their newly found independence. So The People showed their respect for the two women by listening to what they had to say” (122). Again, this is a different narrative and the two old women become an allegory for not only older women but any age of women.

I would recommend this to just about anyone. Some subjects in particular this book may pertain too may include but not limited to: women and gender studies, history, feminist studies, cultural theory/history, and social studies. This would be a great book for children as well as college students. Its expansive nature makes it a wonderful piece of literature.

10/10

 

 

feminist studies, history, history of africa, history of magic, history of the united states, History of the US, religious studies, spirituality, Uncategorized, world history

Book Review: Chireau, Yvonne P., Black Magic:Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition (Berkley/Los Angels/London: University of California Press, 2006), Pp. 222.

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Coalescing religiosity and cultural tradition is an ever present reality in the history of  conjure tradition and practice of African Americans. Although Conjure practices are not relegated to African Americans, historians have located a direct lineage to the genealogical origin of conjure tradition and practice in Africa. The displacement of Africans, by way of the slave trade, opens up an aperture to discuss the mobility of  “slave religious tradition”(41).  Within this framework conjure was not only shaped by the slave trade but also was transformed by the diaspora of Africans in the United States. Chireau’s thesis states, “I have argued that African American Supernatural traditions, as dynamic products of black spirituality, are best understood within their actual social contexts”(151).  The author does an excellent job at contextualizing time, space, and social constructs that shape religious practices and legacy of tradition. Chireau also defines terminology in this book. For example Chireau defines conjure as, “A magical tradition in which spiritual power is invoked for various purposes, such as healing, protection, and self defense” (12). This is essential in understanding what the main point is of her book but also sets up the reader to read on and not have to stop to define terminology.

Chireau historicizes this subject by using wold history to propel her reader into a deeper understanding of how conjure’s tradition grew and shifted by region. The very nature of supernatural beliefs was as much apart of the Old World structure of African life as it was now for the New World that they had come into by force (33). Thus, the interweaving of history and culture is a fundamental aspect of conjuring history, practices and traditions. We cannot leave out the synthesis of Christian influence on African American spirituality that the author provides. Chireau identifies the early twentieth-century  and the “Eternal Life Spiritualist Church, founded in 1913 in Chicago,” as the  revival of the Spiritualist practices (114). These practices become apparent again in the late twentieth into the twenty-first century (139-140).

Interestingly, Chireau chronicles women within the conjure practice and traditional lineage as much as the men in this movement. Although there is a robust amount of women’s participation and representation the  question of why, women’s presence is so important, is neot addressed. The conclusion that can be made of these accounts are influenced by the statistics on slavery and the oppression that was felt by both women and men. As stated by Chireau, “the activities of such enslaved Conjure men and women have been well documented” (15). What the author does provide clearly is a clear picture of the female Conjure stating, “black female supernatural specialists were represented in a gamut of gender stereotypes in fiction and folklore, from the sinister, decrepit hag to the dangerous, bewitching mulatta. African American Conjure women inherited a legacy of powerful spiritual roles that had been instituted by their foremothers” (22).  Again, as for the specifics such as the “how” and the “why” of these women’s presence/practices, the reader may be left wanting more. I would recommend this to any reader that is interested in the movement of spiritual practices and black magic from Africa to the US. I would also recommend this to historians, women studies enthusiasts, and religious studies academics.

10/10