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Erskine Clarke. Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005. xiii, 601pp. ISBN 978-0-3001-0867-5. Reviewed by Kelly J. Baker, for the Journal of Southern Religion.

Dwelling Place is a masterful, perhaps magisterial, narrative of the intimate relationships between white plantation owners and the black slaves, who were necessary for the success of plantations, the running of homes, and crucially, the economic gain of the owners. Erskine Clarke delves deeply into the lives of the Jones family, the plantation owners, and the lives of Lizzy's family, the enslaved, as they live side-by-side, separated by the bounds of race. Clarke traces tragedy and the keen difference of loss for both families. The Jones family was marred by the loss of many relatives. The death of a plantation owner did not just impact his relatives but also the slave families, who were separated and shuffled as property that was divided among the whites. This epic presents the Jones family who sought to be benevolent owners and how the burden of the peculiar institution pressed heavy upon their shoulders. What this white family considered benevolent did not ring true with the slaves, who lost spouses, children, mothers, and fathers as plantations grew and declined. Benevolence contained a harshness, which the Jones family could not realize or possibly even admit to themselves.


 
"Clarke . . . takes us on a journey through the marshes, swamps, rice, and cotton fields into the houses and churches of the 'masters' to provide a much-needed in-depth study of lives of plantation owners and slaves."  

 

Clarke, thus, takes us on a journey through the marshes, swamps, rice, and cotton fields into the houses and churches of the "masters" to provide a much-needed in-depth study of lives of plantation owners and slaves. These two worlds, Clarke demonstrates, rested side-by-side, but one was a world of fašade that hid the emotions and stark realities of the slave life. The other was the world of access to education, wealth, and cohesiveness built upon the backs of other humans. For Clarke, what becomes clear is that the slaves had a better vision of the incompatibility of these worlds, and the whites did not realize that truth until the death knell of the peculiar institution had sounded. At that moment, slaves did not necessarily have to follow the whims of "benevolent" masters and mistresses, and the members of the Jones family expressed frustration and confusion that these black men and women did not continue their loyalty. Clarke's epic traces the history of the Jones family and their slaves from 1805 to 1869. Using one narrative, he presents the stories of each to not only demonstrate the insidious nature of slavery, but also to show a three-dimensional portrait of a slave owner, Charles Colcock Jones, as he struggled with this institution in religious terms. Jones was not a Simon Legree, a violent, harmful master, but he was also not a proverbial saint. Charles proves to be a historical actor, who, despite his best intentions and his moral quandaries, eventually bows to the centrality of a place in his life. A southerner by birth, Charles could never escape the bounds of his home, his aptly-titled dwelling place. The place shaped him and molded his religious vision of the world. The region, it might seem, had power over the hearts and minds of the Jones family, and ultimately, their attachment was to region above all else.

In Clarke's description of Charles Colcock Jones, he presented a man "deeply conflicted by the contradictions of this white ideology" (52). On the one hand, Charles wanted to bring God to the slave settlements, so the inhabitants could experience divinity personally and understand the sacred nature of the cosmos similarly to their owner. On the other, Charles did not want the slaves to have access to one thing that he was granted by birth: freedom. They could worship the same God, but freedom was a guaranteed right of whites only. That contradiction manifested throughout Charles's life and ministry. He preached to the slaves on plantations as well as settlements and in schoolhouses converted a few evenings a week to small churches. He even created a catechism especially for the "Negro," which clearly demarcated the boundaries between his world and the world of the slaves. For the supposedly benevolent slave master, preaching Christianity to the slaves would make them more obedient to their masters. His argument for spreading the Gospel, which garnered white support, again harkened back to the peculiar institution. He wanted slaves to know God as long as they knew their subservient place in God's world. His wife, Mary, supported his ministry, and she was also involved in teaching Sunday school to the inhabitants of her plantation. They were both committed to the religious education of slaves in general, but I could not help but wonder if their commitment was somehow unique among their southern neighbors. Their effort appeared extraordinary. Were Charles and Mary different from their southern brethren? Were other plantation owners as adamant and dedicated to the religious education of slaves? Or are they a unique case study of one family's attempt to modify the peculiar institution? My main question is: How indicative are they of plantation owners in the South? Can their case study be generalized? If not, Charles and Mary might prove to be more "benevolent" than their friends and neighbors and their struggle with their place in the slave holding system might provide a "kinder, gentler" portrait of owners. Clarke also alludes to the other owners, who were quick to rely upon brutality rather than Christian charity. The attempts of Charles and Mary to keep families together based of Christian principles might prove rare. However, this obligation did not guarantee stability because they also separated families including the family of Phoebe and Cassius. Ultimately, they valued peace in the settlements over Christian virtue. How might we interpret these actions? Religion had value for crowd control, but not when slaves threatened the status quo? Their impulse as master and mistress outweighed their Christian sensibility. How are we to understand this complexity? As slaveholders, Charles and Mary faced contradictions between their religious understandings of the world and the fact that they owned and controlled other humans for their economic livelihood. In spite of Charles's early radical interpretations of slavery as a system, the more entrenched he became, the harder it was to maintain those early principles. His Christianity bowed to his plantation role.

Yet to be fair to Charles, there were moments in the epic when his religious sensibility was so incensed that he bristled at the bounds of slavery. When the tutor for his children, William States Lee, raped Peggy, an attractive slave, Charles reacted with horror. Outrage overwhelmed Charles because the tutor had not only molested the young woman but also violated Charles's trust. For the plantation owner, the action was criminal, but other whites, most importantly elders of the Columbus church, doubted the veracity of Peggy's claim. Instead, they defended Lee by noting that slaves were known to be liars. Charles, then, was confronted by a problem. Slaves were disparaged because they were slaves, and white men were somehow above reproach. The institution, which Charles believed brought slaves to God, also guaranteed that slaves were treated as lesser humans and lacked the rights of their white brethren. In his defense of Peggy, he did not criticize the institution that allowed such violence to occur. Instead, he centered upon the breach of trust he had with another white man. Slavery, like its white enforcers, was above reproach.

Despite his acceptance of the peculiar institution, Charles did strive to better the lives of his slaves through Christian ministry. What Clarke makes apparent is that Charles "was not introducing religion to the settlements" (151). Rather the settlements already contained a "sacred cosmos;" the religious world of slaves was not open to the white minister who, over the course of his life, would catch glimpses of the sacred world but could never be a participant. The introduction of Christianity allowed for a construction of a religious hybrid, based in the indigenous traditions of Africa. The "Apostle to the Negro," however, did not imagine that slaves would interpret his message in their own terms and use religion as a weapon in their constant struggle with whites. Charles's sermons on the importance of marriage were used to counteract the separation of slave husbands and wives, and his sermons on the importance of being a good servant meant his audience harassed the Apostle. For Clarke, the missionary owner could have never realized the power of interpretation for the slaves. Teaching Christianity supposedly would have made slaves more obedient, but instead, the Gospel message allowed them to voice complaints about their own treatment and condition. Christianity helped with resistance. As I was reading accounts of slaves accosting Charles after an unpopular sermon, I was surprised that slaves articulated their dislike directly to the missionary owner. Those slaves confronted Charles because they believed he presented a "one-sided" view of obedient slaves from the biblical text (138). For Clarke, such direct resistance could have proved disastrous, but it did not. Instead, these complaints signaled that the slaves imbibed his message of "spiritual freedom," so that they asserted their powers of interpretation and challenged his authority on such matters (139). The Jones family might have owned those who lived in the settlements, but they could not control the slaves' interpretations. That engagement led to the creation of African American Christianity, which was based in the arbors hidden from the vision of whites as well as in public displays of complaint and disagreement. What is so crucial about Clarke's analysis is that he presents Charles's attempts to instill theological concepts of obedience while simultaneously demonstrating the creative engagement of slaves. Through the author's elegant storytelling, the reader can see that biblical injunctions for the obedience of slaves did not ensure such behavior. Rather, some of these slaves questioned the legitimacy of that argument not only in the spiritual but also the physical realm. Running away coincided with Charles's calls for spiritual freedom; even though he did not necessarily see the connection. The missionary owner provided the ammunition to justify those endeavors in the minds of slaves because spiritual freedom signaled the potential for physical freedom.

In public critique and in distant arbors, Clarke highlights the presence of a distinctly African American Christianity. Conjuring was employed for vengeance; Sharper, an African American minister and mentor to Charles, led religious services free of white preferences for worship; and songs functioned as catechism. Clarke provides a persuasive case for the deployment of Christianity, but I wanted to know more about what religious practice entailed. In hushed arbors and in the schoolroom churches, slaves participated in two visions of the faith. How did those in the settlements practice this hybrid faith of conjurers, magic, Jesus and scripture? How did they reconcile the two into a unified sacred cosmos? Throughout the plantation epic, we get glimpses of the fear of slave magic by owners, the significance of conjurers and their competition with preachers, and the faithful attendance to Charles's sermons. What was the religious worldview of Lizzy's family as well as the other families? In the case of the white family, we have access to Charles's writings and sermons, but what about the other inhabitants of the plantation? Did they see their religious practices as dramatically different from the exercises of whites even when black and white attended the same services? Perhaps a complete rendering of that worldview is impossible because of our lack of historical sources, but I wished that Clarke, spurred by the imagination, had given us a larger glimpse. Imagination, as the author notes early on, is a key piece of historical endeavor, and it is likely the tool we need to present this cosmos. I guess I was seeking a tangible look at the hybrid. In addition, why were Charles and other owners so willing to overlook, or deny, the centrality of this other sacred cosmos? What was at stake for white owners in this possible ignorance? Charles disdained those practices, but he did not comprehend that his teachings were being combined with African remnants. Black and white lived side-by-side, and Clarke shows that each group inhabited such disparate spiritual as well as physical worlds.

The physical world also plays a larger part in the epic. The surroundings include marshes, swamps, fields and forests, and much of the action, black and white, revolves around the physical space. Slaves make their way to (temporary) freedom because of their intimate knowledge of each plantation, but place also dwells on the hearts and minds of the white inhabitants. Throughout Clark's narrative, Charles's commitment to his home tempers his radical zeal. He identified himself as a citizen of the South, despite his early interest in the abolition movement. Region pressed upon him, and his theology was molded by the place and plantation life. Clarke iterates a thesis about the power of the South to mold all to its unbending will. In her work on evangelical men in revolutionary Virginia, Janet Moore Lindman argued that such faith had to adapt to the masculine culture of the South to survive, and I think Clarke shows that Christian theology bowed to the institution of slavery. Why does the South have such power over its inhabitants? Was the South a hegemonic place that bent all to its will? Is this fundamentally about the commitment to slavery? The romance of the physical place, and its creation by slaves, pulled at the heartstrings of Charles and Mary and made it impossible for them to take up residence anywhere else. Their nostalgic visions of home also impacted their support of the peculiar institution. That home, romantic or not, could not continue without the labor of slaves. Their religious lives centered upon the moral quandary of slavery, but the influence of region proved too great for them to use religion to question the system of oppression. Charles spent his life cultivating religious missions to the other inhabitants of his place, but he did not see the power of Christian theology to question the flawed institution. Yet members of Lizzy's family did. Again, is it the physical place that exuded such power? Or is it the romantic vision of the region that led Charles down that path like so many others?

In closing, Clarke's Dwelling Place lives up to its subtitle. It is an epic, the story of two families confronted by racial boundaries. It is a story of white privilege and black resistance, but more importantly, it is an in-depth study of the problem of slavery for both parties. That problem of slavery is represented again and again as a fierce bull alligator, or gator, which thrashes and chomps. At each stage in Charles's journey, Clarke notes the ferocity of the gator because the missionary owner, despite his valiant attempts to be benevolent to those he owned, cannot "domesticate" the predator. The gator is a dilemma. Can Charles focus upon the spiritual lives of his slaves while he owns their physical bodies? Can he separate spiritual and religious freedom? How could Charles argue for the morality of an institution of oppression? Instead of domesticating the gator, what becomes clear is that the gator overpowers the "Apostle to the Negro." The evil of the institution outweighs the benevolence. This metaphor proved particularly striking to me. The gator might appear docile and still, but always the predatory nature lurks under the surface. In his skillful epic, Clarke wrangles the bull gator with its jaws chomping furiously and its tale thrashing, and I would argue Clarke stands triumphant because he is able to present the complexity of those familial relationships intimately wed together through the bonds of slavery. Where Charles ultimately was beaten by his predatory foe, Clarke, at least in my mind's eye, not only wrangles but also bests the gator by placing a human face on such a dilemma. With his wrangling skill, there is possibly another career awaiting Clarke in the swamps and marshes of Liberty County, Georgia, or my native Florida.

Kelly J. Baker
Instructor of Religion and Humanities
University of New Mexico and Central New Mexico
   
 
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