Erskine Clarke. Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0-3001-0867-5. Reviewed by Anne Blue Wills, for the Journal of Southern Religion.
Cornel West and Eddie Glaude Jr., scholars of the African American religious experience, have written, "Historical work is, in a significant way, ethical work," accomplished by telling "thick stories" that provoke re-examination of one's way in the world. In his new book, Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic, Erskine Clarke accomplishes such ethical work, at least for this white reader. He not only walks his audience through a story of epic depth, but also engages its capacity for empathy across lines of race and class, and stirs its sense of justice.

Thirty years ago, Robert Manson Myers sifted through the letters of Georgia planter Charles Colcock Jones (1805–1863) to produce the award-winning book Children of Pride: The True Story of Georgia and the Civil War. Myers's book focused on the white planter experience. Clarke returns to the plantations Jones owned, but takes their measure as places in which both white owners and enslaved blacks lived and moved and had their being.

Charles Colcock Jones's substantial holdings of land and slaves supported his work as a Presbyterian minister, denominational official, theologian, church historian, and occasional professor at Columbia (S.C.) Theological Seminary, the institutional forerunner of the now Georgia-based seminary at which Clarke teaches American religious history. The Rev. Jones led the way in promoting religious education for slaves, and in 1831 organized the Liberty County (Georgia) Association for the Religious Instruction of the Negroes. This organization, which endured until 1848, constituted the first such organized effort in the South. Clarke details Jones's early insistence on slavery as an evil, but also shows Jones's resistance to abolition as too radical, as trusting too much in uneducated blacks to join productively in civil society. Jones saw Christianity as a transforming agent that would not only make blacks more obedient in the short term of slavery's continuation, but also better citizens in the long term of Emancipation. He also viewed Christianity as a brake on the brutality of white masters; ever mindful of the need to cultivate his white patrons so that his teaching work among their slaves could continue, he nevertheless indicted the absence or the insincerity of slaveowners' religious commitments.

As the book's title indicates, the places defined by the Rev. Jones's plantation and ministerial enterprises stand central to the story (and name each chapter). These places grounded and nourished the identities of their various inhabitants. That land—owned by the whites, worked by the blacks—represented for all of Clarke's subjects different kinds of constraint and conflict. Clarke particularly wants to show that blacks as well as whites found in these locales the constancy and belonging that all human beings attach to a home place. Clarke tells how blacks shaped the lowcountry landscape and so became in turn connected to and shaped by it. In his telling, Clarke does not present a simple vision of happy slaves at home down on the plantation. Rather, he gives Jupiter, Robinson, Sandy Jones, Cato, Cassius, and their families their due as fully human agents negotiating a dehumanizing system in and through the land they tamed.

Clarke places his accounts of white plantation and black settlement life in counterpoint to one another, in order to show the similarities and vast differences between free white and enslaved black experience of the land. He details the sights, sounds, and conversations of both the plantation piazza and the settlement stoop. He juxtaposes the education of planter children in their grand house—the classical training overseen by a paid tutor—against that of slave children in their cabins—the wisdom of folktales passed through generations around the communal fire. He describes the celebrations enjoyed by whites at weddings and holidays, and then devotes a chapter to the arduous, ingenious work required of the slave cook, Patience, to prepare for such gatherings. In spite of these composite views, however, the Jones family still dominates the volume, much as they dominated their region of antebellum Georgia. They did leave the written sources, of course, and participated in the enduring institutions that have preserved their stories. But the predominance in the book of Charles, Mary, and their children tends to keep the narrative focused on whites as the most important human agents in the story. Perhaps unavoidable given the sources, this sense of white primacy does pull against Clarke's intention to show the integrity and full humanity of the slave settlement community.


"The convicting force of Clarke's reconstruction gathers almost imperceptibly as the story unfolds at an unhurried lowcountry pace."



Yet the ethical edge of Clarke's historical work does emerge as he gazes beyond the plantation house into the settlements. The convicting force of Clarke's reconstruction gathers almost imperceptibly as the story unfolds at an unhurried lowcountry pace. The length and density of this epic may deter some readers; it covers more than sixty years peopled by more than one hundred characters. Clarke does not intend, however, for his readers to churn quickly through the book. He wants us instead to dwell for a time in this world of white privilege and black servitude, of veiled white anxiety and covert black resistance, where whites sometimes felt the constraints of the morally incongruous slave system they had engineered, and where blacks carved out—from the considerable physical and ideological constraints slavery placed on them—opportunities for resistance. As I read, I found myself in a vividly drawn Georgia landscape, treading treacherous moral terrain. I felt for these characters in ways I might feel for beloved but flawed family members, hoping for the best, expecting the worst. Through his evenhanded portraits, Clarke elicited my compassion not only for the settlement-dwellers as they endured the humiliations of slavery, but also for Charles and Mary Jones, whose apparent good faith issued in execrable choices. Clarke's fully realized portrayals of blacks and whites led me to mourn the inexorable tragedy of slavery for all of them—for the slaves bound, often literally, by an evil system, and for the whites, pitifully hamstrung by their own hypocrisy.

Of course, slaves' physical and emotional terror far outstripped the whites' bind of prevarication. That is where I catch myself, where my sympathy with the Joneses gives the lie to my self-image as enlightened on matters of race. This is where I find that I have assumed my place in the story not in the settlement cabins or in the kitchen toiling with Patience, but on the plantation piazza, having tea with the Joneses. Waxing sympathetic for Charles and Mary, I hear myself sounding callow at best, racist at worst. Yet here, too, is where the ethical force of Clarke's historical work lands. He challenges me to contemplate the slaves' unaccountable perseverance and the whites' blind persistence, to credit the distance between, and to name, finally, the former as rooted in truth and the latter in a nightmarish deception.

Whatever sadness I may feel for the Jones family's epic wrongheadedness, then, stands paired with and outshone by a sense of triumph at the renewed possibilities for Patience and her husband Porter, Syphax and his wife Elsey, and the other freed slaves. Perhaps Clarke has succeeded most powerfully at producing in a twenty-first–century white reader an understanding of emancipatory joy, which begins with the tiniest inkling that something tectonic gave way 140 years ago, something that continues to fracture as the book tremors through my view of race, self, and world. "Our years come to an end like a sigh," says the 90th Psalm, from which Clarke takes his title. The book ends in very much the same way, quietly, like a breath, and my melancholy gives way, like a breath, to rejoicing.

Anne Blue Wills
Assistant Professor of Religion
Davidson College
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