For most Americans, Liberia is a remote place in a distant continent with no connection to their daily lives. Few of us know that in the early 19th century, it was, in fact, an American colony, and to this day, contains communities called Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Virginia, Kentucky, and Maryland founded by freed American slaves and populated by descendants of those slaves. Author Alan Huffman tells this story in his remarkable Mississippi in Africa: The Saga of the Slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation and Their Legacy in Liberia Today
. The book begins as the author's attempt to flush out the details of a fascinating Mississippi family story about a prominent plantation owner's (Isaac Ross) desire to repatriate his slaves in Africa, but ends up being a complex and sensitive exploration of the legacy of slavery in the American South and Liberia. As Huffman traces Ross' descendants and those of his family's repatriated slaves, an intricate story of displacement, cultural identity, immigration, oppression, and racial politics unfolds. Ironically, when America's freed slaves immigrated to Africa, they brought with them the only social paradigm they knew, that of the Southern plantation. Overcoming severe hardship, they recreated that culture, and by the time Liberia became Africa's first independent republic in 1847, the minority American settlers had become the country's ruling class. Huffman adeptly shows how this legacy contributes to the current crisis in Liberia.
Mississippi in Africa
is at once historical and contemporary, personal and universal, local and global. As Huffman indicates, slavery "has existed throughout Africa's recorded history, and still has not entirely passed from the scene." Its pernicious consequences continue to affect the lives of millions caught in the devastating and endless civil war in Liberia, just as they continue to impact American life. Yet, Huffman repeatedly shows that this extraordinary story cannot be simply reduced to a polemical rendering of white oppression of blacks. It is so much more about the powerful versus the powerless. Thus, Huffman presents the subtleties that have shaped both the politics and human relations in this story with profound humanity and nuance. --Silvana Tropea
From Publishers Weekly
A former staff writer for the Jackson, Miss., Clarion-Ledger, Huffman tells two tales here. One concerns the life, legacy and legatees of Isaac Ross (1760-1836), "the man responsible for sending the largest group of freed-slave emigrants to the colony of Liberia." The other combines travelogue and reportage of current events as Huffman seeks their descendants in present-day Liberia. The former is a good yarn, but the latter makes for a plodding read as the diligent author reports all. Ross's will stipulated that on his daughter's death, his slaves should be freed and his Mississippi estate sold to pay for their transit to Africa. The daughter worked toward this goal; her cousin, against it. From probate and chancery to appellate courts and legislative halls, the case moved in Dickensian manner before the will was finally put into effect in the late 1850s. A suspicious fire and a death occurred at the house, but the emigration proceeded apace. In his sleuthing, Huffman meanders a bit, sometimes from one historic house to another or from one repatriate's letter to another and frequently from one person he meets along the way to another. A little less Huffman would have done more justice to the Ross story. Alternatively, a little less Ross might have freed Huffman to go ahead and write the account of his Liberian trip, one where the reader didn't have to wonder where al Qaeda and the Mississippi state flag controversy fit with Isaac Ross, his repatriated slaves and their descendants. Yet the idea behind this book - the who, what, when, how, and why of this body of retransported slaves and its effect upon Liberia today - is fascinating enough to keep readers going.
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