Nell Irvin Painter


"BETWEEN TWO WORLDS," Review by Nell Irvin Painter in The Washington Post Book World, 2 February 1992, Page x4

AMBIGUOUS LIVES Free Women of Color in Rural Georgia, 1789-1879
By Adele Logan Alexander
University of Arkansas Press, 268 pp. $23

SOME YEARS ago a respected older southern historian remarked that when he started writing southern history in the 1930s, the field was made of narratives intended to buttress the segregationist status quo Since the 1930s -- particularly since the 1960s -- historians of the South who have focused on issues of race and class have thrown the truisms of segregation and white supremacy (such as permanent white unity) into doubt. More recent work on women and gender has come to make even the writing of the 1960s and 1970s -- which once seemed so emancipated -- appear shackled to white supremacist verities. Full of original research, Ambiguous Lives tells a new story and fundamentally questions historical

Adele Logan Alexander's main protagonists are the women of the Hunt family of middle Georgia, from which she herself is descended. Alexander, who, with her husband, Clifford, heads a corporate consulting firm in Washington, was named for one of her subjects, the Atlanta-University-educated Tuskegee Institute educator, Adella Hunt Logan (1863-1915). Distinguished from the masses of enslaved black southerners by their very light skin, long, straight hair, and comfortable style of living, the freeborn colored Hunts owed their wealth to Nathan Sayre, a prosperous white gentleman whose conjugal relationship with Susan Hunt endured for a quarter of a century before his death in 1853. Hunt's mixed African, Cherokee, and European descent made marriage between her and Sayre illegal, but they had three children. By drawing his will with extreme care and engaging in subterfuge with a white friend who mercifully kept his side of the bargain, Nathan Sayre was able to leave his widow and children a considerable inheritance.

Ambiguous Lives is far more than genealogy, for Alexander's analysis encompasses all the free mixed-race families of 19th-century middle Georgia. Along with the Hunts, the reader encounters the families of wealthy David Dickson and his slave Julia Lewis, whose daughter, Amanda America Dickson, attended Atlanta University and inherited Dickson's sizeable estate, and of Samuel and Louise Wynn, whose daughter, Jennie, also graduated from Atlanta University. Although their numbers were small, the meaning of families structured along this pattern was large: Significant numbers of wealthy white planters were remaining legally unmarried in order to maintain stable conjugal relationships with women of color. No wonder southern white women were preoccupied with competition between light and dark women!

Adele Alexander's ground-breaking study contains many lessons that contribute to the recasting of southern history, starting with the need to see past simplistic racial dualisms. She recognizes emancipation as a watershed in the educational and familial history of all southern people of color, even those born free. Before the Civil War, Hunt women lacked access to formal education, but after the war they attended colleges established for former slaves. Emancipation also revolutionized their choice of spouses. Having allied themselves with white men before the war, Hunt women married men of color afterwards. If only in the sense that African-American men gained access to more women (black, brown, yellow), emancipation wrought a revolution insouthern family patterns. No wonder postwar southern white men were preoccupied with the issue of sexual competition between black and white men!

Alexander helps mightily to explain where earlier histories came up short. First of all, they investigated only the most obvious of lives, which for Alexander's purposes does not suffice. She looks carefully at people who do not fit the set categories of southern life, which turn out to be the cast of characters dictated by white supremacy. At first glance, her subjects would seem not to exist: They are free people in a land of slaves and masters; they are women of color, some of whose ancestors were American Indians, in a black/white world; they are the preferred consorts of monogamous men whose society declared whiteness the foundation of femininity.

Second and more tellingly, Alexander's subjects are undocumented people whom she calls "hidden families." Official source material does not reveal evidence of lives that southern orthodoxy denied, for Alexander's subjects often deliberately concealed their existence or were purposefully kept off census tracts and tax rolls. Faced with such secretiveness, she turned to family correspondence, personal recollections and architecture, along with diaries and wills and newspapers. Historians, however, have mistakenly confused law with fact and assumed that the social reality portrayed in the census and the tax lists describes things as they were, not merely things as the people in charge thought they ought to be. Ambiguous Lives challenges historians to find new methods and discover a complex new South that is absolutely fascinating.

Nell Irvin Painter is the Edwards Professor of American History at Princeton University and is writing a biography of the black feminist abolitionist, Sojourner Truth.

Copyright Nell Irvin Painter

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