The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 105, July 2001 - April, 2002

Book Reviews

well-crafted book, Long Gray Lines leaves the reader hungry for more.
Austin, Texas Bruce Ashcroft
Creating Freedom: Material Culture and African American Identity at Oakley Plantation,
Louisiana, z840-z950. By Laurie A. Wilkie. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State
University Press, 2000. Pp. xxv+294. Preface, acknowledgments, introduc-
tion, appendix, references, index. ISBN 0-8071-2582-2. $69.95, cloth.)
What can a button tell us about the lives of African American women in the
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? A fragment of a pickle jar or toy
teacup? In the skillful hands of archeologist Laurie Wilkie, quite a bit. Wilkie us-
es the artifacts dug from the earth of Oakley Plantation in West Feliciana Parish,
Louisiana, to interpret the lives of African Americans who lived there. Created
about 18oo, Oakley eventually included three thousand acres with two hundred
slaves. After the Civil War, the former slaves became tenants, and the plantation
remained productive even after becoming a state park in the late 1940s.
The study sites were in the area known as the "yard," where the house servants
lived. The excavations included an antebellum slave cabin and yard, occupied
through the 1930s; the location of the plantation's first Great House; the
kitchen garden; and a house built and occupied by tenants from the 192os until
1949. Together the sites span the entire history of Oakley as a plantation. Wilkie
employs "contextual archeology" (p. 226), complementing the artifacts with
painstaking census and plantation-record research, oral history interviews, and
relevant fictional works. The paucity of primary sources, however, demonstrates
how crucial this archeological study is. Focusing on the houses of house servants,
Wilkie concentrates on gender relations, because most of the houses' occupants
were females. These house servants differed from many African Americans be-
cause of their daily, close contact with the plantation's owners. She considers
daily practices that "leave abundant archeological evidence: the selection, prepa-
ration, and service of meals; child care; and personal aesthetic and presentation"
(p. 135). These daily practices (which Wilkie calls habitus, after the theory of
Pierre Bordieu) have particular relevance to women.
Seeking to infer meaning from the tiniest objects, Wilkie uses artifacts to see
not only what happened but what the material culture may have meant to indi-
viduals and how they constructed their identities with physical objects. The fact
that a broken china-doll head went to the trash heap rather than being mended
may indicate the disdain that the African American children had for white peo-
ple's hand-me-downs (pp. 149-150). A beautiful button may be an emblem of a
woman's love of adornment and desire for acceptance in the African American
community despite her proximity to the plantation owners (p. 160). Coins may
reveal the occupants' attitudes toward money (p. 203), and medicine bottles can
illuminate women's roles as the makers and distributors of medicine (p. 179).
Because the artifacts must stand almost alone, readers seeking definite an-
swers may become frustrated. There can be no certainty about what the artifacts
mean but rather only Wilkie's closely reasoned speculations. There are no quo-
tations from any of the inhabitants, and as a result, the prose is occasionally dull
and repetitious. The heavy reliance on a few secondary sources shows the great

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Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 105, July 2001 - April, 2002. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101222/. Accessed July 13, 2014.