Constructing identities on the frontier of slavery, Natchez, Mississippi, 1760-1860

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Buckner, Timothy Ryan

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This study recognizes that abstract social forces like western expansion and slavery as well as legal changes brought about by shifting national boundaries affected those living in Natchez, but extends analysis beyond these forces by exploring how dayto-day interactions helped to create racial, class, and gender identities. This work examines the creation of a slave society in Natchez not as a simple transfer from the Chesapeake or the Lowcountry, but rather as created out of specific borderlands conditions resulting from competing imperial powers, Native American nations, and the influence of enslaved Africans. Those whites who established themselves and their fortunes in Natchez became anxious to change this borderland into a bordered land and the importation of African and African American slaves became the means by which these borders were closed. As the economy of Natchez was changed by the cotton boom, so too were the lives of the enslaved. By using the various narratives of Abd Al-Rahman Ibrahima, the famous African “Prince,” I trace processes through which Africans joined and influenced ix a specifically African American culture. Enslaved Africans like Ibrahima formed links to one another and to American born slaves from the Upper South, thus entering into and helping to shape a rapidly creolizing culture, one that sank increasingly deep roots into Mississippi. As Natchez became a center for cotton production and the domestic slave trade, like other cities across the South, it became a hub for people of various classes and ethnicities to interact in ways that were unavailable in the countryside. This urban space created a forum for black men to assert their place in the town’s community of men. This forum resulted in “cultural frontiers” dividing the town, and agreements and conflicts across these frontiers shaped the daily lives of men and women in ways that often defied legal precedents, class affiliation, or even the notion of white supremacy. The crossing of these cultural frontiers enabled Africans and African Americans to negotiate within the boundaries imposed upon them by white hegemony and construct identities tied to the communities they formed on the frontier of slavery.