Friday, March 26, 2004
Alan Huffman's "Mississippi in Africa" (Gotham Books, 2004, $27) is a remarkable book that will capture your imagination and ground you in reality. For anyone who has ever been haunted by the ruins of Windsor, or wandered through an ancient graveyard and thought," if only I knew the stories," this is the book for you. It seems that Huffman reveals a new ghost on every page, hiding behind Corinthian columns, lost in legal minutiae, a child killed in a legendary slave revolt, slaves choosing an uncertain and deadly future rather than remain enslaved.
If your surname is Ross, Wade, Woodson, Reed, Bailey, Witherspoon, Murray or Burch, or if your family has roots in Natchez plantations named Prospect Hill, Holly Grove or Rosswood, then "Mississippi in Africa" could very well solve some ancestral mystery. But like Huffman, you might also find yourself entwined with a faraway African country named Liberia.
Liberia was once a hopeful dream, a solution to the problem of how to deconstruct slavery without deconstructing the entire United States. In the 1830s through the 1850s, the repatriation of slaves to Liberia was considered the centrist approach, neither abolitionist nor pro-slavery. It was debated along with states rights and the Missouri Compromise as a potential solution for a country being torn apart on the Mason-Dixon line. For politicians, like Lincoln, who believed slavery could be coaxed into a gradual dissolution, it offered a means to get the process underway.
A slaveholder in Natchez, Isaac Ross, did his part in promoting the promise of Liberian repatriation. When he died, he left instructions that all of his many slaves be given the option and the means to emigrate. Since the loss of the Wade slaves also meant dissolution of a huge plantation economy centered on his home at Prospect Hill, it's not surprising that his heirs contested the will.
The glory of Huffman's storytelling is that he finds his sources and inspiration in the present day, with people and places that are part of all our lives. Then he takes the present and weaves it to the past with dozens of interconnecting links. Eventually, we find ourselves in present-day Liberia, as closely bound to that troubled country as we are to Natchez.
The transition from their lives of slavery at Prospect Hill into new lives in Liberia, where some of them prosper, and even build majestic colonial mansions like the ones they knew in Mississippi—but many others die early on or scratch out a meager existence—is riveting. And once again history is the main character in this drama, as Huffman tells Liberia's story, of former slaves enslaving indigenous residents, of immigrants assuming royal status and wealth, and of 20th-century rebellions that overthrow the 19th-century immigrants, and leave the country open to ancient tribal factions.
After "Mississippi in Africa" you will never ignore another newscast about a Liberian massacre because you think it's just another faraway place with no real connection to your life. Huffman reveals a Mississippi and Africa linked bone deep. No small part of the thrill of this book is in cheering on its writer, who risks his life to retrieve the tale from its source, before it's too late.
Alan Huffman will be read and discuss "Mississippi in Africa" at Hinds Community College. Call 857-3349 for details.