It is difficult to begin a critique of this book as it attempts to deal with issues that are specifically and explicitly not compatible with traditional views of American history; the scholarship that the authors engaged in was necessarily hampered by the lack of previous research and accurate record keeping. Both primary and secondary sources were in scant supply, and without these tools it would be difficult for a text on any subject and within any academic discipline to be created. In this regard, the authors have done a commendable job of attempting to piece together collective histories and individual narratives that need to be told in order to gain an accurate understanding of early America and Virginia.
That being said, the authors spend far too long in this readers opinion discussing and analyzing the works of previous historians that these authors specifically point out as being inaccurate, incomplete, or outright wrong in their conclusions. The result is a text that appears to be more concerned with the manner in which the specific historical epoch and community has been studied and presented previously, rather than with an accurate and detailed representation of this epoch/community. Statements like, “it was difficult for the historian to imagine,” and, “a modern historian who attempted to classify” appear throughout the book, making this a sort of meta-history, and an analysis (usually resulting in a correction or condemnation) of previous scholarship in the authors research area (31, 45).
There is, of course, a great deal of merit to this type of scholarship; it is necessary to point out where academic fields have failed to truly capture their subjects and render them accurately and objectively visible, or the necessary understandings might never be achieved and the same inaccuracies will continue to be perpetuated.
In this regard, then, the authors are to be thanked for this contribution to the accurate understanding of the nations history and the realities of black life in the early colonies — correcting the mistakes of others is a necessary step towards the truth. Early on in the text, however, the authors claim that, “this book focuses on the lives of a particularly well-documented group, the free blacks of Northampton County” (32). While attention is indirectly focused on this group. A great deal more attention remains focused on other historians readings and understandings of this groups history. The focus, that is, is on the well-documented group of previous historians, and not on the subject of these historians or the claimed subject of the authors themselves.
Despite the failure for these authors to escape the scholarship of the past and develop a text with its own independent and vigorous investigation and analysis of its subject, they do manage to provide a more detailed and comprehensive view of the Northampton County community of seventeenth-century free blacks than did previous historians. Illuminating the facts of this communitys existence is highly important to understanding the development of this country as a whole, and of race relations specifically — especially in light of previous failures of historians.
Breen, T.H. And Innes, Stephen. Myne Owne Ground. New York: Oxford.