Notes Concerning the Author
Mechal Sobel is professor emeritus in history at the University of Haifa in Israel. She received her Ph. D. in history from Boston University in 1968.
In her book, The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth-Century Virginia, Mechal Sobel seeks to prove “…that blacks, Africans and Afro-Americans, deeply influenced whites’ perceptions, values, and identity, and that although two world views existed, there was a deep symbiotic relatedness that must be explored if we are to understand either or both of them.” This reviewer believes the author offers strong and convincing evidence which serves to present a careful and thoughtful history of how society in Virginia in the eighteenth century was formed out of the interaction of the ideas, religions, and cultures of blacks and whites. Sobel demonstrates not only black influence on white culture, but white influence on black culture, and, often, shows elements of an emerging Anglo-Afro-Virginian culture.
Among other sources, Sobel analyzes letters, diaries, testimonials, photographs, architecture, and church records, using a simple methodology of comparison and contrast of black and white cultures. Once the author compares the cultures, she examines in detail how they influenced and changed each other, and to what extent this occurred. Throughout the book Sobel shows that blacks and whites not only had day-to-day contact, but formed friendships, considered each other members of the same “family”, lived and worked together, and even had children together. Particularly valuable in destroying the stereotype of a divided culture where whites hated and feared blacks and vice versa, her presentation of this information undergirds her thesis nicely.
Sobel also makes a careful examination of the period of the Great Awakening in Virginia. Certainly the best-written and most interesting part of the book, it serves to further destroy stereotypes about black-white relationships and to demonstrate the strong influence that the races had on each others’ religious beliefs. Sobel states: “… blacks came to accept a personal Christ, a very Christian understanding, while whites came to accept that ‘death was not a fearsome prospect but a step toward one’s fulfillment,’ a very African perception.” Blacks taught whites that death was a home-going, not a leap into the great unknown. Whites influenced blacks to see Jesus Christ as the Creator and Redeemer, who offered them the promise of a better life in the future. These radical changes in the theologies of the Afro-Virginians and the Anglo-Virginians stemmed from the fact that during the Great Awakening, Baptist and Methodist churches with mixed congregations grew up all over Virginia. Combined with normal daily interaction between the races, and an increasing interest in, and dialogue about spiritual things due to the Great Awakening, blacks and whites could not help but influence each other in the realm of religion.
In this reviewer’s judgment, Mechal Sobel does a convincing job of showing how blacks and whites shared and merged values to create a uniquely Virginian culture in the eighteenth century. Through examinations of religions, housing, conceptions of time, and world views, the author offers a portrait of life in eighteenth century Virginia which serves to break down commonly held views about race relations and cultural development, and in their places erect the firm conviction that both blacks and whites worked alongside one another to create Virginia.
It is clear from the above review, that African culture was transformed in blacks and their offspring and descendants through exposure to their new environment in Virginia. And, undoubtedly, white culture was likewise modified by the experience. Furthermore, Sobel’s account of life in Virginia can be considered to be a valid report, and that is worth reading. But caution is submitted by a second reviewer with regard to the proposed cause and effect relationship. The genetic makeup of the blacks in Virginia remained essentially identical to their cousins who remained in Africa, and exacting studies of twins separated at birth have repeatedly proven that one’s genetic inheritance will determine about sixty percent of the person one becomes as an adult, the remainder being the environment experienced beginning at conception. With that thought in mind regarding what makes a person who he or she becomes, this second reviewer submits that the primary cultural adjustment was in the black, and it resulted from exposure to Virginia and the whites they came to know, live among and work beside. The white culture in Virginia differed from the white culture in Boston, from where Sobel conducted her research, and that difference (not related to African influence) derived from the first days of colonization, where the Puritan Separatists chose to settle in Massachusetts Bay instead of Virginia Colony.
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