Exchanging Our Country Marks

Andrea Zuvich

25 February 2006

In Exchanging Our Country Marks, University of Georgia Professor of History Michael Gomez states that the North American slave society in general was divided due to the multitude of differences between the African slaves which included: origin, customs, religious beliefs, and language. Indeed, the 18th century slave advertisements shown on the University of Virginia website show that the slave societies in Colonial Virginia were divided due to various factors, which were predominantly class, physical features, and above all, race.

The runaway slave advertisements do not only describe the missing slaves but they also hint at something darker – classism. Classism, as described by Michael Gomez to be; “the differences among and between the African and country-born[1],” is blatantly displayed in several of the runaway slave advertisements. The first example of classism comes from the Virginia Gazette, dated 31st October 1739: “he is a new Negro, and can’t speak English…[2].” The second as well, “He is middle siz’d, about 27 Years old, Virginian-born and speaks very good English,” has proved that there was division between those slaves who were African-born and those who were born in the American colonies. Slaves were in conflict- those who had been born in Africa were away from their country and enslaved, and the others were enslaved in their own country.

The physical features of a slave were of great importance to the slave owner. The runaway slave advertisements from the antebellum period are surprising in their use of the same wordage in order to describe a runaway slave or servant. For example, many use the words “lusty, Likely” to describe a fit young male or female slave. Throughout the ads, height and build are common themes. These factors were for identifying purposes; however, they also serve to show a pattern that Gomez discusses in his book as well. This pattern is that height was a great consideration in selecting a slave- many slave owners thought that taller slaves were better[3].

Race, of course, plays a key factor in the segmentation of the slaves. Where once these people differentiated themselves by ethnicity and culture; the white man divided the African further by calling some “very black” and others “yellowish” and that these others “had the look of a Madagascar.” Since these African slaves had few other commonalities such as origin or custom, they became close by what the white man pushed them together as: black people. Thus, came the new factor of race into the equation.

Other historians tend to commonly agree with the theories expressed by Gomez. For example, in the Slave Trade as History and Memory by University of Chicago, Professor of African History Ralph Austen writes that the history of the slave trade is subjective in the way that African-Americans view it because they all experienced different aspects of it. This is similar to Gomez’s viewpoint; that African-Americans combined their torturous experiences and formed one collective memory as a result.

Duncan MacLeod’s Slavery, Race and the American Revolution has similar themes as those present throughout Gomez’s book, primarily MacLeod’s the theory that the white European-American male needed the slave as a part of his society so he would feel even better that he was a free man, and not enslaved as the slave was[4]. This concurs with the theory Gomez presented in Exchanging Our Country Marks. And also, in Michael Mullin’s Africa in America, he writes that since the American colonies used slaves of primarily Central West-African origin, they tended to make use of their tribe’s traditional facial scars, customs, languages, and religion to create an integrated past for all African slaves[5]. This also is in agreement with Gomez, who writes that in addition to height, some African slaves were identifiable by their “country marks.[6]

Basically, all these historians are unanimous in the belief that African slaves brought together different tenets of their respective backgrounds and together forged a new identity from the ashes of their former different and even more segmented identities. Gomez himself early in the book stated that his views on the North American slave society were based on writings by Amiri Baraka and Sterling Stuckey[7].

Michael Gomez clearly researched his topic thoroughly and came to a satisfactory conclusion. The runaway slave advertisements that were published throughout the American colonies were written with class, physical features of the slaves, and race in mind. Gomez’s belief that African-Americans are what they are today due to a number of factors in the New World is consistent with beliefs of other historians in the same field. His book remains a very important addition to any history scholar’s collection and to the average American.


1. “Virginia Runaways.” http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/subjects/runaways/1730s.html

2. Ralph A. Austen, “The Slave Trade as History and Memory:  Confrontations of Slaving Voyage Documents and Communal Traditions,” The William and Mary Quarterly January 2001 <http://historycooperative.press.uiuc.edu/cgi-bin/justtop.cgi?act=justtop&url=http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/wm/58.1/austen.html> (23 Feb. 2006).

3. Duncan J. MacLeod. Slavery, Race and the American Revolution. New York:

Cambridge University Press, 1974.

4. Michel Mullin. Africa in America: Slave Acculturation and Resistance in the

American South and the British Caribbean 1736-1831. Champaign:

University of Illinois Press. 1994. 14.

[1] Gomez, Michael A. Exchanging Our Country Marks- The Transformation of African Identities in the

colonial and antebellum South. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998. 15.

[2] “Virginia’s Runaways: Runaway Slave advertisements from 18th Century Virginia Newspapers.”


[3] Gomez. Exchanging Our Country Marks, 39.

[4] MacLeod, Duncan. Slavery, Race and the American Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press,


[5] Mullin, Michael. Africa in America: Slave Acculturation and Resistance in the American South and

British Caribbean. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1994. 14.

[6] Gomez. Exchanging Our Country Marks, 39.

[7] Gomez. Exchanging Our Country Marks, 4.

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