Atlantic World Diversity and The People Who Came

A common Lowcountry saying claims that Charleston is located “where the Cooper and the Ashley Rivers meet to form the Atlantic Ocean.” The pride of Charlestonians is the point of this joke, but it also reveals the potentially problematic influence of geographic perspective in history. Contrary to this saying, slavery, plantation agriculture, and even the region’s first major cash crop of rice all came to this city through a larger Atlantic World trade and migration system.  Charleston was just one of many ports. To fully comprehend Charleston’s early history, geographic boundaries must expand beyond a city, the southeast region, and even North America, to include the exchanges and influences of this complex multinational, multicultural network. For these reasons, the exhibition section I am working on this week, Origins and Arrival, highlights the broader context of the Atlantic World in shaping slavery and plantation agriculture in the South Carolina Lowcountry region. This history includes the exploits of colonization and the tragedy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade between Africa, Europe, the Caribbean and the Americas, as well as the rich cultural diversity and creative exchanges that occurred as individuals from various backgrounds adapted to shifting social hierarchies and landscapes in the Lowcountry region.

Drafting the exhibition text for this section led me to think about the remarkable diversity of Charleston’s history– a point that has only become more apparent in the area’s public history representations in recent decades (though awareness of this history will certainly increase with the development of public history projects such as the Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor and the International African American Museum). Many visitors and even locals in Charleston still do not recognize that cultures and traditions from West and Central Africa, the Caribbean, and Native American groups as well as Europe highly influenced this area’s much lauded colonial and antebellum history. Increasing awareness of this historic diversity is not just more accurate, it also introduces powerful pedagogical context for embracing diversity in the present.

I recently saw evidence for the educational role of Atlantic World historic diversity while conducting dissertation research on the island nation of Barbados. Librarian Harriet Pierce, at the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, suggested that I look at a series of textbooks used in Caribbean schools, The People Who Came, because they were edited by an influential Barbadian historian and activist, Edward Kamau Brathwaite. Brathwaite helped edit these school textbooks after Barbados obtained independence in 1966. Before that time, as an English colony, history education in Barbados focused overwhelmingly on England. As I heard numerous times from Barbadians during my research interviews, “We learned about all the English monarchs in school, but nothing about Barbados.” The People Who Came re-framed this narrow historic focus to tie Caribbean history (including Barbados history) to the Atlantic World and beyond, presenting a diverse international narrative of the historic experiences of Amerindian populations of the Americas, as well as the African, Indian, Chinese and European people who came to the Caribbean islands.  For the first time Caribbean students of African, Asian, and Amerindian descent could see their historic backgrounds comprehensively represented in their history textbooks. Representing this diversity was particularly significant to Barbados, where over 90% of the population are of African descent.

As I read these textbooks, I thought of my own elementary and middle school history education experiences in South Carolina. I am not up to date on what current South Carolina history textbooks are like, but in the 1980s and early 90s when I was in school, English and Anglo-American history dominated colonial and antebellum South Carolina history narratives, while African American and Native American histories played a minor role. And we certainly learned very little about African and American histories before New World colonization (which is a major theme in The People Who Came). I hope the Origins and Arrival section of this exhibition will contribute to placing Atlantic World diversity at the center of South Carolina’s colonial and antebellum history, but reading these post-independence Caribbean textbooks also made me consider the significance of making this diverse history apart of the curriculum for South Carolina students in today’s multicultural world– a goal we can also strive for in our Educator Resources section.

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