“freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,
and nothing ain’t worth nothing but it's free”
Me and Bobby McGee by Janis Joplin/Kris Kristofferson/Fred Foster plays quietly as the ghosts of Old Mississippi are celebrated in this fantastical tome, Mississippi in Africa by Alan Huffman, narrated by Andrew L. Barnes. An epic masterwork of journalism that explores the truth of African American history and emancipation, follows a freed slave colony in Liberia, creating enlightenment from the darkness of political/emotional conflict and violence. Because of varying accounts, the official records “not always infallible, but they were crucial to the telling of this story” (noting a certain inertia of mouldering records in boxes and surreptitious record pilfering in the name of preservation at the Jackson County Archives and the nonexistent records in Monrovia, Liberia due to the Archives being razed by war) and the conflicting oral histories from descendants, the author has a difficult task, to which he does justice.
The beautiful intonations of Andrew L. Barnes spin the story of African Americans as he brings history alive in audiobook through the reading of Mississippi in Africa by Alan Huffman. Alan Huffman is a noted journalist and author from Mississippi who has been published in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian, Newsweek, Washington Post Magazine amongst others and written 5 books, Ten Point, Sultana, We’re with Nobody, Here I am: The Story of Tim Hetherington, War Photographer and Mississippi in Africa. This book is a natural for audiobook, as it is a first person narrative that tells the story of the research, personal accounts and Archives records presenting the African American experience in the United States since the Civil War and particularly the story of the emancipation of people at Prospect Hill, Mississippi and the repatriation of most Prospect Hill slaves, to Liberia. The narrator, Andrew L. Barnes is a multitalented performance artist with a deep bass-baritone voice that brings the story to life, I listen to the audiotape as if sitting by the fireside in the long night listening to the rich weave of historical accounts and the living history as told by the descendants of Mississippi plantation owner Isaac Ross. Mississippi in Africa begins with the story of the author, a friend of Gwen, a descendant of the Ross family who gives him the old run down manse Holly Grove, one of the Ross family homes, provided he move it to his own property and restore it. Holly Grove, was an old abandoned manse the author and his friends would camp out in when they were children, with the telling of midnight stories of Prospect Hill, how Isaac Ross freed his slaves in his will, how his grandson, Isaac Ross Wade tied up the will in litigation for 10 years, how one night in April, the coffee was spiked and the fire set, killing a child, and the hanging of 11 or 12 of the African American people and the freedom of the remaining slaves, most to a colony in Liberia. The only furnishings that survived from the Prospect Hill fire was the old ebony and rosewood grand piano and some portrait paintings (this writer can just imagine how the talk of freedom and going to Africa whilst camping out in the old mausoleum, fired the imagination of the author as a child). Eventually, Gwen gave the old grand piano to Author Huffman, who late in the night, would hear it mysteriously play as if haunted by the ghosts of Prospect Hill. Author Huffman presents the history of Isaac Ross, a plantation owner in the early 1800’s, the intrigue of his will that set his slaves free and gave them the option of settling in Liberia. Ross was noted for treating his slaves well, most could read and write, they were not beaten and the families were kept together, the slaves never sold, yet “for the people in the field, it was someone else’s cotton.” The Ross family had met with tragedy and a number of adult members of the family dying from yellow fever including his wife. When Isaac Ross died in 1836, the will was contested by his grandson Isaac Ross Wade who attempted to keep the estate and the slaves, tying up the fates of the slaves in litigation for ten years. Wade had “no intention of stopping until he won or ran out of options.” The slaves were in a quandary and became restive “if the highest court said they were free”, why weren’t they? Talk in the community suggested that when Isaac Ross Wade was dead, they would be free. On April 15th, 1845 at 1:00 a.m. a fire broke out at Prospect Hill, the coffee of the Wade family was laced with a sleeping medicant that night by the cook Gracie Ross or perhaps one of the slaves in the kitchen. Thomas Wade had not had the coffee that night and he woke to find the front door jammed, when he opened the door, the slave Esah stood there with an axe but did not bother to help him. The child, Martha Richardson, Wade’s niece died in the fire. Everyone else escaped yet the vast majority of the finery and furnishings were lost. In the next few days, eleven or twelve of the slave “leaders” were hanged. Disturbingly, there is “not even a footnote in the official written record”, in the Mississippi Historical Society or other Archive material of the fire on Prospect Hill or the murders. When researching the oral history “the prevailing white version of the story of Prospect Hill always includes the slave uprising but the prevailing black version never does.” The history itself is an emotional powderkeg, “you know it was bad, no matter what gloss you put on it, it was a bad thing.”
Some of the African Americans at Prospect Hill were spirited away by the American colonization society to Liberia. After the fire the will was probated in 1849, “200 of the 225 slaves had been given their freedom and had emigrated to Mississippi in Africa” later to be “joined by 200 slaves freed by other sympathetic Ross family members.” When the freed slaves arrived in Liberia, they were met with violence from the indigenous peoples and the new colony was enmeshed in difficulties. Historian Mary Jo Sullivan notes, “It’s small size, lack of communication with other settlements, little support from the American colonization society and the Mississippi Society, lack of knowledge of the human and physical environment, and sporadic hostility from African neighbours hampered progress.” The colony thrived for a time, the freed slaves taking in less fortunate indigenous families and J.J. Ross establishing a public school in Monrovia. However, the modern day politics of Liberia has proved unstable and violent, manifesting civil war with prejudice and violence against descendants of the American freed slaves. In December 1999, the Association of Liberian Journalists in the Americas called for a tribunal from the United Nations to investigate war crimes. Opposition leader Samuel Dokie, his family and security people were assassinated; a Monrovia church with hundreds of people inside were murdered; dissidents have disappeared as well as ordinary people in the street, feared murdered; journalists had been harassed by the Charles Taylor regime. Although the Archives in Monrovia was razed, Author Huffman does find and talk to some descendants of the Ross family freed slaves. Benjamin Ross, tells how most of the homes in the community have been razed, “only the vaults in the cemetery, they don’t bother,” he says. “There is nothing left, really. Just vast land. Nothing.” Author Huffman and Benjamin Ross share an ironic moment, as they realize, “his ancestors risked their lives to emigrate from America to Liberia, and now he is struggling to get back.”
In Mississippi in Africa, the tumultuous history of the Ross family and their African American slaves creates a living genealogy, is the history of the geography, the social structure, the politics, the economics of Mississippi and the Deep South. “Money transformed a remote wilderness into a region of wealthy fiefdoms anchored by Greek Revival, Federal and Italianate mansions filled with imported furnishings the most elaborate of which were surrounded by landscape gardens sometimes stepping down towards the rivers on terraces while just out of sight were the rude dwellings of the slave quarters with dirt yards.” In the background, the story of the Civil War weaving the history of black emancipation into the present day, the family stories of the oral history of the Ross and black descendants and the history of black and white race relations in the United States. After the Civil War, “for the next 150 years the population and taxbase spiraled downward taking with it much of the infrastructure that had supported the one crop economy; railroads, farms, ports, ferries, bridges, roads and countless communities and more than a few towns since nothing came along to take cottons place as an economic engine the county founded.”
When interviewing Dolores Ross, she is of mixed race, a descendant of Isaac Ross, questioned about her understanding of the Ross will and the events of the black uprising, Ms. Ross says “One thing it ain’t is black and white.” There are photographs of her family and everyone is of different degrees of colour. Huffman notes “There are many people of mixed race in this part of the country but they are usually the results of clandestine encounters. Racial mixing is rarely documented for posterity articulated by permanent white families like the Ross’. The average Mississippian would not know what to make of the picture … because Butch and Delores are clearly abused they are aware that such intermingling does not sit well with everyone and is rarely mentioned in most portrayals of the Ross family. This is the Deep South after all known world wide for its troubled racial politics.” “If a person grows up in a black family, they tend to think of themselves as black, regardless of the shade of their skin” and similarly in white mixed race families. The struggle for consciousness by the larger white society is mirrored in the varying terms used to describe mixed race peoples throughout history in the United States census record. Beginning in 1870 with 3 designations, black, white and colored, introducing the term mulatto in 1880, specifying terms such as quadroon and octoroon in 1890, reintroducing the term mulatto in 1920, specifying anyone of a black bloodline as black in 1930 and finally, to the designations of black and white and other racial categories with the option to choose more than one in 2000, showing in the last case that racial designation has lost importance in the present-day United States.
Mississippi in Africa is rich with details and stories, well researched, weaving the personal accounts with archival records creating a sweeping panorama of emancipation, and the history and violence of the African American experience in Southern United States juxtaposed with wartorn Liberia. Throughout the work it is good to note the positive, the benevolence of Isaac Ross freeing his slaves, monies sent by Isaac Ross Wade to the Liberian Community, how the Mississippi in Africa community attempted to help the local indigenous peoples, how Nathan Ross emigrated from Liberia to the United States in the 1980’s has a successful business and sends monies to his struggling relatives in Africa and the story of the author, who in return for the gift of the Holly Grove manse researches and writes this detailed history of Gwen’s family. This book is an important presentation of history and African American race relations in the United States and Liberia, making history come alive, not unlike the great non-fiction works of Canadian history written by Pierre Berton.
This enlightened truthtelling is a must read, giving roots to black America, Mississippi in Africa by Alan Huffman/narrated by Andrew L. Barnes.
Genre: AudioBooks, History, Black Issues, NonFiction, Politics and Government
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