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Book Review


David Northrup, ed. Crosscurrents in the Black Atlantic, 1770–1965: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's Press, 2008.


     As the only available textbook on the Black Atlantic to combine primary source materials with historical analysis for such an extended time period, Crosscurrents in the Black Atlantic, 1770–1965 is a worthwhile teaching tool for both high school and undergraduate courses. Its multi-century coverage helps show students that the struggle against the slave trade was a direct predecessor of twentieth-century Civil Rights struggles and the decolonization of Africa. Perhaps its most important potential contribution is to assist "instructors of courses in world history who wish to include greater coverage of black people." It can offer a much-needed corrective to the portrayal of Africans as cringing victims of the slave trade, presenting them instead as complex historical actors.

     Northrup, a well-regarded scholar who also edited a textbook on the Atlantic Slave Trade in 2002, offers a helpful 27–page introduction, giving a chronological history of the Black Atlantic. Some discussion of the meaning of the concept "Black Atlantic" might have been helpful here, but the section has the merit of offering a compelling periodization to which the instructor using this text might refer throughout the semester. Among other important points, the editor's introduction highlights how relations between at-times idealistic African-Americans and their erstwhile sisters and brothers in Africa were often difficult, owing to the cultural and linguistic gulf that existed between them. The volume also contains a helpful chronology of key events, study questions, and a selected bibliography for students wishing to pursue particular themes within the Black Atlantic.

     Northrup includes the writings of public figures, from the proto-feminist, African-American poet Phillis Wheatley to the flawed anti-colonial ruler of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie. Other selections, like snippets of writing from Olaudah Equiano, C.L.R. James, W.E.B. DuBois, Kwame Nkrumah and many more, will give students a brief introduction to the writings of the most prominent diasporically-minded black intellectuals of the modern era, and can be effectively used in conjunction with lectures on these influential figures. With a suggested retail price of $15.95, this text will certainly bring comfort to cash-strapped undergraduates, although as a document collection it is meant to be used in a supplementary role. This rich primary source collection might be profitably combined with new textbooks such as Laurent Dubois and Julius Scott's Origins of the Black Atlantic; James Walvin's Making the Black Atlantic; or Michael Gomez's Reversing Sail. Paired with such books (some of which might be too difficult for certain high school students), Crosscurrents provides an opportunity for students to write essays based on manageable and clearly contextualized primary sources. Especially for those of us who occasionally have trouble getting students to complete ungraded, out-of-class reading assignments, the engaging set of concise excerpts would be great for use in discussion sections, or in class-time group activities.

     Crosscurrents does, however, have a few problems that should be mentioned. The collection succeeds as a sourcebook for the Black Atlantic, but teachers who want to expose their students to the broad cultural and intellectual sweep of the African diaspora will have to look elsewhere. Such a book would have to contend with the trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean slave trades, diasporas that forcibly exiled from their homes almost as many Sub-Saharan Africans as did the Atlantic slave trade, albeit over a much longer period of time. Furthermore, "free or otherwise empowered black people," really meaning educated, Christianized, English-speaking, published authors, are the main stars in Northrup's firmament. But this is a somewhat narrow view of the forms cultural expression and political self-organization took in the African diaspora, leading the author-editor into further blind alleys. For example, Northrup rightly emphasizes that religion was a central organizing principle for diasporans attempting to reconstitute relations with fellow blacks in their hemisphere. The only ones who seem to merit inclusion in his narrative are Christians. As scholars like Michael Gomez, Joao José Reis and Sylviane Diouf have made clear, however, Islam was also a potent organizing force in the daily struggles of diasporic Africans, as were other religions like Santería, Candomblé, and Yoruba. Finally, the editor's Anglophone emphasis leaves gaps. While the Francophone Black Atlantic does get a bit of attention through a discussion of négritude, Spanish and Portuguese-speaking blacks do not appear in the text, and Brazil (the destination of more African captives than any other territory in the Americas) does not even appear on Northrup's map of the Black Atlantic (4–5).

     These exclusions leave only a tiny sliver of the population of transplanted Africans and their descendants in the textbook: English-speaking, educated, relatively privileged, usually Christian men and women. Fortunately, this selectivity does bring up interesting questions for discussion that Northrup asks throughout the book: what kind of impact did this westernized Afro-diasporic intelligentsia have on "the masses" in Africa and throughout the diaspora? Very little, it turns out, although he highlights the short-lived UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association) and Booker T. Washington's pedagogical model as important exceptions to the rule of diasporans' limited influence on the course of African liberation struggles. In making this point, Northrup concedes that his authors of choice are precisely those whose activities did not directly impact the everyday struggles of women and men in the Atlantic diaspora.

     In conclusion, Crosscurrents includes a very important selection of documents representative of an emergent canon (whose emergence as such is to be applauded) of Black Atlantic thinkers. Because of Northrup's selective vision, however, the text would best be used in conjunction with other source materials.

Daniel Rood received his PhD in history from UC Irvine in 2010. He is currently the Hench Post-Dissertation Fellow at the American Antiquarian Society, where he is working on his book manuscript, entitled "Plantation Technocrats: Science, Technology and Expertise in the Slaveholding Atlantic World, 1830–1860. He can be reached at

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