“Myne Owne Ground”: Race and Freedom on Virginia’s Eastern Shore Book Review

653 words | 3 page(s)

This book entails a divergent perspective of blacks in early colonial Virginia as opposed to what many authors have written about blacks on the issue of racism and slavery in America. Rather than focusing on black slaves, Innes and Breen (2004) pointed out the life of black free men, how and why they acquired their freedom, and how they behaved (Breen & Innes, 2004). The book implied that during the mid-decades of the 17th century, a strong black community developed in Virginia’s Eastern Shore. This black community cultured rapidly and often bought their liberty and that of their loved ones from their white masters.

They leased land from prosperous white landowners and endeavored to accumulate substantial capital to buy land and embark on large scale farming (Breen & Innes, 2004). During this time, freed black people developed close ties with their white neighbors, as they traded freely and engaged in other economic activities. Resultantly, they similarly became disputatious and individualistic as white yeomen and planters. However, after large numbers of African slaves arrived towards the end of the 17th century, these hard-won freedoms and privileges disappeared, as a harsh form of chattel slavery developed on the Eastern Shore.

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“Myne Owne Ground” indicated that only individuals with substantial resources were granted vital and envied roles in Virginia society (Breen & Innes, 2004). The rights of the freed and wealthy blacks were approved and safeguarded by the courts. They could engage in business with whites, while white children placed in the blacks custody were often called to testify against the whites in court trials. In this book, the authors implied that Virginia’s Eastern Shore society was initially largely on Englishness and social class than race (Breen & Innes, 2004). For instance, John the black indentured servant and Joe, who was a white indentured servant, were both treated equally by their masters. Ideally, racism was propelled by the gentry after Bacon’s Rebellion, where extreme racial demarcations were created within the poor class, and consequently weakened their unity (Nash, 1982).

Breen and Innes insinuate that racism did not emerge automatically, but it was rather created. The key point of the authors in this book is to embolden the readers to view the beginning of racism in a divergent perspective as opposed to the common assumption that Africans were treated unfairly when they arrived in America (Roark et al., 2016). The premise of the book is that there was a time in which the African Americans were equal to their white counterparts in the society, able to own animals, land, and even slaves. To support their arguments, Breen and Innes relied heavily on published primary and secondary sources, and numerous public documents.

Even though this captivating view of African Americans’ achievement under hardships may well be veracious, the authors failed to document their arguments. First, the population of Virginia’s Eastern Shore was very small. Hence, such a small group could have only posed minimal challenges to the racist white planters (Suggs, 1981). Additionally, the authors scrutinized only a few freed black households in any detail, and these households may not have sufficiently reflected the situation of the whole community. Besides, the book entails a rather thin research. The authors spent the entire first two chapters on Anthony Jonson and based their argument on published secondary and primary sources, rather than on manuscript local records of Eastern Shore counties of both Maryland and Virginia, where Johnson relocated after mid-century (Breen & Innes, 2004).

Similarly, their central theme on free blacks exhibits similar deficiencies. Instead of presenting systematically detailed evidence of social coexistence between the whites and free blacks in Virginia, they only use a few cases of black behavior from actions and wills. Therefore, since the authors failed to scrutinize the white society on the Eastern Shore exhaustively, they did not compare blacks and whites sufficiently. In addition, by limiting their research solely on readily available documents, the authors failed to present a more detailed picture of black life.

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