The best books on race and slavery in the colonial lower Mississippi Valley

Christian Pinnen Author Of Complexion of Empire in Natchez: Race and Slavery in the Mississippi Borderlands
By Christian Pinnen

Who am I?

I am a historian of race and slavery in the lower Mississippi Valley because the region is a fulcrum of United States history. I was always fascinated by the significance of the Mississippi River for American expansion, society, and culture. Ultimately, this region of the country is so deeply influenced by people of African descent that must be included in all histories, and I wanted to share their stories in a particular place during the colonial period. Telling these stories in places where they have commonly been less well represented is very rewarding and it opens more ways to understand the histories of places like Natchez along the Mississippi River.


I wrote...

Complexion of Empire in Natchez: Race and Slavery in the Mississippi Borderlands

By Christian Pinnen,

Book cover of Complexion of Empire in Natchez: Race and Slavery in the Mississippi Borderlands

What is my book about?

In Complexion of Empire in Natchez, Christian Pinnen examines slavery in the colonial South, using a variety of legal records and archival documents to investigate how bound labor contributed to the establishment and subsequent control of imperial outposts in colonial North America. He examines the dynamic and multifaceted development of slavery in the colonial South and reconstructs the relationships among aspiring enslavers, natives, struggling colonial administrators, and African laborers, as well as the links between slavery and the westward expansion of the American Republic. 


Complexion of Empire in Natchez highlights the effect that different conceptions of racial complexions had on the establishment of plantations and how competing ideas about race strongly influenced the governance of plantation colonies.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth-Century

Why did I love this book?

Gwendolyn Hall’s Africans in Colonial Louisiana is still a foundational text when it comes to studying African people in the colonial lower Mississippi Valley. Her deep knowledge of the archives and skill in bringing the stories of enslaved Africans to live make this a wonderfully informative book. She draws deep connections between the places that Africans left and their forced new homes in Louisiana, while placing a special emphasis on how that culture turned into an African creole culture in the lower Mississippi Valley.

By Gwendolyn Midlo Hall,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Africans in Colonial Louisiana as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Although a number of important studies of American slavery have explored the formation of slave cultures in the English colonies, few books have undertaken a comprehensive assessment of the development of the distinctive African-Creole culture of colonial Louisiana. This culture, based upon a separate language community with its own folklore, musical, religious and historical traditions, was created by slaves brought directly from Africa to Louisiana before 1731. It still survives as the acknowledged cultural heritage of tens of thousands of people of all races in the southern part of the state. In this work, Gwendolyn Hall studies Louisiana's Creole slave…


Book cover of Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World

Why did I love this book?

Jessica Marie Johnson’s award-winning Wicked Flesh is a masterpiece of historical writing that takes an in-depth look at the stories of Black women in search for freedom. Connecting the lower Mississippi Valley to an Atlantic World dominated by slave trading, the intimate histories of Black women take center stage as Johnson chronicles the ways they sought to counter the power white men attempted to claim over their bodies.  

By Jessica Marie Johnson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Wicked Flesh as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The story of freedom pivots on the choices black women made to retain control over their bodies and selves, their loved ones, and their futures.
The story of freedom and all of its ambiguities begins with intimate acts steeped in power. It is shaped by the peculiar oppressions faced by African women and women of African descent. And it pivots on the self-conscious choices black women made to retain control over their bodies and selves, their loved ones, and their futures. Slavery's rise in the Americas was institutional, carnal, and reproductive. The intimacy of bondage whet the appetites of slaveowners,…


Book cover of Voices of the Enslaved: Love, Labor, and Longing in French Louisiana

Why did I love this book?

Voices of the Enslaved is a beautifully written and masterfully researched book (also award-winning) on the French period in colonial Louisiana. White traces the fleeting appearances of enslaved Africans in Louisiana court records to illuminate how they were able to achieve legal recognition where their enslavers tried to give them none. Out of the many fragments of legal documents, White creates a collage of Black lives in French Louisiana that really illuminates the Black contributions to the region.

By Sophie White,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Voices of the Enslaved as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In eighteenth-century New Orleans, the legal testimony of some 150 enslaved women and men--like the testimony of free colonists--was meticulously recorded and preserved. Questioned in criminal trials as defendants, victims, and witnesses about attacks, murders, robberies, and escapes, they answered with stories about themselves, stories that rebutted the premise on which slavery was founded.

Focusing on four especially dramatic court cases, Voices of the Enslaved draws us into Louisiana's courtrooms, prisons, courtyards, plantations, bayous, and convents to understand how the enslaved viewed and experienced their worlds. As they testified, these individuals charted their movement between West African, indigenous, and colonial…


Book cover of Natchez Country: Indians, Colonists, and the Landscapes of Race in French Louisiana

Why did I love this book?

George Milne writes the definitive history of the Natchez people and how their encounter with the French changed the power dynamics in the lower Mississippi Valley in the eighteenth century. Milne draws on research in French archives to show how French and Natchez built a fragile cultural understanding based on misinterpretation of social and cultural cues. This book is very good at elaborating on the complicated relationships that often turned on questions of race, dominance, and submissiveness in the lower Mississippi Valley. It specifically highlights the way in which the Natchez people became aware of the way the French viewed them as racially inferior and in turn defined their own people as distinct from Europeans and Africans.

By George Edward Milne,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Natchez Country as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At the dawn of the 1700s the Natchez viewed the first Francophones in the Lower Mississippi Valley as potential inductees to their chiefdom. This mistaken perception lulled them into permitting these outsiders to settle among them. Within two decades conditions in Natchez Country had taken a turn for the worse. The trickle of wayfarers had given way to a torrent of colonists (and their enslaved Africans) who refused to recognize the Natchez's hierarchy. These newcomers threatened to seize key authority-generating features of Natchez Country: mounds, a plaza, and a temple. This threat inspired these Indians to turn to a recent…


Book cover of Bounded Lives, Bounded Places: Free Black Society in Colonial New Orleans, 1769–1803

Why did I love this book?

Kimberly Hanger’s Bounded Lives, Bounded Places establishes the role of free people of color in Spanish New Orleans. She traces families and individuals of color throughout the Spanish decades and weaves a rich tapestry of their world in the Crescent City. Women play an important role in her work, and she teases out the way that free people of color sought to fit in the colonial society of Louisiana. While never able to become equal to white people, they created a space above enslaved people that enabled them to participate as ‘almost free’ in New Orleans’s society.

By Kimberly S. Hanger,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Bounded Lives, Bounded Places as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

During Louisiana's Spanish colonial period, economic, political, and military conditions combined with local cultural and legal traditions to favor the growth and development of a substantial group of free blacks. In Bounded Lives, Bounded Places, Kimberly S. Hanger explores the origin of antebellum New Orleans' large, influential, and propertied free black-or libre-population, one that was unique in the South. Hanger examines the issues libres confronted as they individually and collectively contested their ambiguous status in a complexly stratified society.
Drawing on rare archives in Louisiana and Spain, Hanger reconstructs the world of late-eighteenth-century New Orleans from the perspective of its…


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