The Author’s Corner with Randy J. Sparks

AfricansintheOldSouthRandy J. Sparks is Professor of History at Tulane University. This interview is based on his new book, Africans in the Old South: Mapping Exceptional Lives across the Atlantic World (Harvard University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Africans in the Old South?

RS: In this project I embrace what has been called the “biographical turn” in the scholarship of the Black Atlantic, and it speaks to a growing effort to record the life histories of individual African slaves and their descendants.

It is important to see Africans as individuals with complex lives, as men and women who enslaved and who suffered enslavement, who moved from freedom to slavery and back again, who defy any easy categorization. 

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Africans in the Old South?

RS: I see the reconstruction of individual lives as an important corrective to quantitative studies of the slave trade that have largely ignored the lives of individuals. Studying the life experiences of individuals allows us to better understand the diversity of the African experience in the Atlantic World and in the Old South.

JF: Why do we need to read Africans in the Old South?

RS: The full story of the African slave trade could only be known with biographies of each of its 12,500,000 victims, but that sort of complete record is lost to us forever. This great loss, one of the world’s chief disgraces, serves to highlight the importance that should be attached to every individual story that can be retrieved. And in order to be fully understood, the tragic history of the slave trade must embody its perpetrators as well as its victims, for they, too, have a history. These life geographies of individual Africans, both enslavers and enslaved, remind us of the human and individual dimensions of the Atlantic slave trade and its impacts on individuals and families as well as on the American South.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

RS: I always loved history, but I did not envision pursuing it as a career. It was an undergraduate Southern History class with E. Stanly Godbold that first attracted me to the history of the South, and he and other members of the faculty at Mississippi State encouraged me to pursue an M.A. and then a Ph.D. with John Boles at Rice. I owe my mentors a great debt for guiding me toward this rewarding career. 

JF: What is your next project?

RS: I am currently at work on a couple of projects related to the illegal slave trade of the nineteenth century. One involves cases of slaves in the U.S. and Spanish Caribbean who appealed for their freedom claiming to be British subjects. My larger project explores the U.S. involvement in the illegal slave trade from 1808 to 1865.

JF: Thanks, Randy!