African Families, American Stories: Black Kin and Community in Early New England

I am working at present on revising my dissertation for publication as a book. The project explores the attempts of Africans, both slave and free, to create and maintain families. It makes sense of a remarkable array of historical actors: men like Scipio Gunney, who acquired his freedom as a young adult only to spend decades trying to extricate his children from bondage; women like Hagar, whose adultery, subsequent divorce, and defiant remarriage put her owner’s household in uproar; and a pair like Mark and Phoebe, who fed their master porridge laced with “Potter’s Lead” in hopes that his death would enable them to find owners closer to their distant families. Pulling together thousands of fragments of evidence, my project contextualizes the everyday lives and beleaguered intimacies of these Africans and many others, revealing patterns in their living situations, gendered relationships, and kin communities that historians have never before recognized. At the same time, my dissertation advances arguments related to a range of historical issues, from the relationship between family and freedom in early New England to the fundamental interconnectedness of Africans and Europeans in Anglo-America. The project sets forth methodological arguments as well. Contending that historical method has an important bearing on the ability of scholars to understand and portray slaves as fully human, with complete life spans and complicated contexts, my dissertation makes a case for the importance of reconstructing the lives and trajectories of enslaved individuals in great depth, despite the archival challenges that such an undertaking inevitably entails.  

Understanding the lives of New England’s bound Africans is vital, especially in this historiographical era, when monographs on Caribbean slavery proliferate and work on slavery in the American South continues apace. By emphasizing regions where Africans lived in large numbers and disregarding places where they were only a small minority, scholars of slavery have unwittingly limited their analysis to one end of the broad spectrum of diasporic life and adaptation. My research sheds light on the obstacles and opportunities that existed for Africans who found themselves in parts of the Atlantic inhabited mainly by European colonists and Native Americans, and it provides insight into how these Africans appropriated and repurposed local cultural practices, religious rituals, and legal customs to manage their relative isolation and marginalized position in society. At the same time, it supplies an instructive methodological intervention into the southern-centered historiography on the slave family, which has written the history of slave family life primarily by examining large, and thereby atypical, plantations. As the vast majority of New England slaveholders owned very few Africans, my research illuminates the families of slaves on smallholdings—the setting in which the majority of slaves in the southern mainland colonies, nearly all slaves in the northern mainland colonies, and a surprising proportion of slaves throughout the Atlantic lived, labored, and raised their children.