Erskine Clarke's Dwelling Place


A week ago, I had the privilege of responding to Erskine Clarke's Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic (Yale: 2005) at the Southeast Regional meeting of the AAR. Dwelling Place won the Bancroft prize, and it follows the Jones family, plantation owning whites, and the family of Lizzy, black slaves. I cannot clearly state how much I enjoyed this deep social history of several plantations and their inhabitants. Clarke, a masterful historian as well as writer, peels back the layers of facade, animosity, and so-called benevolence to demonstrate the complicated relationships between blacks and whites and the renderings of place by both groups. This book, like many other quality books in American religious history, sucked me into the narrative and made me empathize with the historical actors, slave and free. During our conversations on the panel, one respondent noted her discomfort with central character, Charles Colcock Jones, who despite his best attempts at benevolence and Christian charity eventually surrendered to the peculiar institution. Clarke, in his commentary on our responses, responded that for him, the "horror" of the book was that even those plantation owners with the best intentions were corrupted by this system of physical bondage. By mapping plantation owners at their best, we can easily see the inherent evil of slave holding. For those of you, who have not picked up Dwelling Place, I highly recommend it because it puts a human face of the issue of slavery of both the owners and those who were owned. Here's a sneak peek at my response (the full response is located here, so make sure to scroll down to "responses"):

Dwelling Place is a masterful, p
erhaps 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, economic gain of the owners. Erskine Clarke delves deeply into the lives of the Jones family and the lives of Lizzy’s family 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, but 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 and, possibly, even admit to themselves.

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 façade 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 this 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 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, and 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. This 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” (p. 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. This 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 their own. For this 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 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 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. Though, 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, like 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, it appears, sometimes 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 are 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, rapes Peggy, an attractive slave, Charles reacts with horror. Outrage overwhelmed Charles because the tutor had not only molested this young woman but also violated his trust. For the plantation owner, this 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 this to happen rather he centered upon the breach of trust he had with another white man. Slavery, like its white enforcers, appeared to be above reproach.

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. This 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 this missionary owner, despite his valiant attempts to 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. This 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 these relationships of families 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.


John Fea said…
Kelly: I have been wanting to read this book. Thanks for the review.
Anonymous said…
Great review and post. Dwelling Place is one of the best books I have read over the past few years.
Anonymous said…
Great review and post. Dwelling Place is one of the best books I have read over the past few years.
Paul Harvey said…
Agreed -- great job, Kelly! A really thoughtful extended reflection.

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