[Review of the Book 'William Johnson’s Natchez: The Ante-Bellum Diary of a Free Negro']
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[Excerpt] To raise this issue of Johnson's silences and social isolation is not to engage in historical pity. He made choices from the options available to him and suffered the consequences as they developed. But his history underscores the fact that slavery generated a corresponding social system that was unforgiving to the individual caught in its contradictory currents. As Michael P. Johnson and James L. Roark suggest in Black Masters, their sensitive study of another slave owner and ex-slave, William Ellison of South Carolina, a purely personal solution to such volatile social relations proved impossible. What bound William Johnson to Mississippi, what inner torment in search of resolution drove him to a relentless acquisitiveness, how he understood his identification with the dominant racial group that kept him at a far distance and would have kept him enslaved but for chance—the diary provides us only with silence on these and similar tensions. What we do know, especially from the survivors of more modern collective acts of evil, is that no one individual can predict precisely how he or she might react to so unforgiving a system. William Johnson's diary, with its paradoxes, hidden conflicts, and unresolved contradictions, allows the reader a glimpse of the social context the author lived in but could take little comfort from.
slavery; freedmen; William Johnson; social history
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