Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Colleagues, a word! (or two…)

· December 1st, 2021 · No Comments

by Kathryn M. de Luna


Kathryn M. de Luna is the author of “Sounding the African Atlantic” in the October 2021 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly.


I had wanted to write an article like this one, applying early (pre-Atlantic-era) Africanists’ methods to Atlantic contexts since grad school. But, if I’m honest, I was always daunted by the time it would take to learn to navigate through the massive Atlantic field—much less the regional research grounding Atlantic processes in specific American communities. Compared to the expansive field of the early Americas, the field of early African history looked more under-staffed than ‘vast’! Intimidated, I continuously set the idea aside in favor of research and collaborations grounded in my (much, much) smaller area of expertise (ancient, medieval, and early modern central Africa).

A convergence of events from about 2013 brought the idea back to the fore. One of our then-graduate students, Chelsea Berry, decided to train in the methods of comparative historical linguistics to better situate her study of Atlantic poison cases in African ontologies, culminating in her dissertation (and forthcoming book) and in a 2019 AHA panel that brought together two further scholars linking historical linguistic evidence and Atlantic history: Christina Mobley and Marcos Leitão de Almeida. From that panel grew a series of conversations with Jim Sweet, who generously forwarded along sources like Baudry’s Vocabulaire Congo (which features in the article), and Josh Piker, who invited submissions from the panel. Like most readers, the timing of COVID interrupted my ongoing projects, which were in the research phase and, therefore, required sustained fieldwork in rural central Africa during the summers. I suddenly had time for this idea. And, crucially in the context of the pandemic, the large-scale, interdisciplinary, ERC-funded KongoKing project (now affiliated with BantUGent, the Center for Bantu Studies at Ghent University) had published their work, including baseline linguistic data on regional diachronic phonology (how language families’ sound systems change over time). The KongoKing team’s work meant that I didn’t need to do fieldwork in contemporary languages to reconstruct such data for antecedent languages undocumented during the Atlantic era. This phonological data is the vital, essential tool with which we identify relationships among words and assess their antiquity to establish basic historical frameworks: the who, what, where, and when of our histories (hence, the use of ‘sound’ in the article’s title to emphasize the centrality of phonology to the method).

Although my AHA paper focused on Brazil and built from Sweet’s research, I was intrigued by Baudry’s vocabulary and Christina Mobley’s arguments about the origins of the enslaved men and women whose speech Baudry sought to record. As I frantically read in the secondary literature over the months it took to research and draft the article and as I simultaneously compared hundreds of attestations (iterations) of words that seemed to me as an outsider to be of possible interest to specialists, but also phonologically viable and semantically informative, it became clear that there was a book project buried in this exercise. Thus, I decided to frame the article as an introduction to the way the methods and archives of early (again, pre-Atlantic) Africanist historians might open new paths into the histories of oral communities in the Atlantic context. I was building from the work of those who had been visitors to my methodological subfield of Bantu comparative historical linguistics (Mobley and Sweet among them), but adding the tricks of the trade mobilized by specialists to get more historical information from language evidence. All along the way, colleagues (including four generous reviewers) shared secondary sources I should consult, manuscripts inaccessible to me due to COVID travel restrictions, works in progress, and feedback on the argument and framing of both the methodological and historiographical aspects of the project. Josh Piker, Meg Musselwhite, and the staff at WMQ not only ensured that the writing was readable (truly the best copyediting process I’ve ever encountered), but entertained all manner of supplementary proposals for a map, online materials, and extended word counts. Forthcoming online components hosted by the OI Reader and Georgetown include raw data, a methods primer, and some teaching suggestions and will, I hope, make the archive itself more accessible and relevant to regional specialists and generalists alike.

For the book to be of any relevance, however, I must return to the necessary starting point for any project: a plea to the generosity of colleagues. I have lists of words, names, chants, oaths, and other African language material rooted in the fraught contexts of the Atlantic from Brazil to the Carolina Lowcountry that attest to the contested, wide-ranging and sometimes quite durable ways in which enslaved Africans and their descendants (re)conceptualized problems as diverse as legitimate governance, the gendered politics of debt, and the meanings of enslavement, marronage, forests, kinship, and sex. But, I would be remiss if I followed only those leads most interesting to me. Instead, I want to invite specialists—you!—to, quite literally, set the terms and scope of this project.

Thus, colleagues, I conclude with a plea for word from you—or, rather, words! I hope “Sounding” persuades you to send along African language materials and African words of significance from your region of expertise. We could know the political philosophies invoked in the name “Zumbi,” one of the leaders of the maroon settlements of Palmares (and the name’s relationship to “Zumba”) for speakers of languages from both west Africa and west central Africa. We could recognize the way “Lucumí” (from the history of Cuban cabildos) referred not only to a location of origin, but also to a suite of common—and contradictory—ideas about the properties of legitimate community leadership across specific regional political cultures within the wider Niger-Congo-speaking world. After all, words invoking concepts rarely carry singular meanings in an individual language, a point amplified by the multilingual Atlantic with its grey zones of near understandings, misapprehensions, and braided strands of translation and meaning-making constituting new wholes from invocations of individual threads of ideology and practice. Together, we can assemble the thousands of data-points (attestations in contemporary and historical materials) needed to reconstruct the contested ideas embedded in words’ histories and, thereby, build a new archive of the Atlantic in and on the terms of the majority of the enslaved, whose individual testimony was never recorded in the colonial archive but whose thought is, nonetheless, a form of knowable history.

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