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The Historical Vision of an African American People

Richard Price


The University of Chicago Press

First-Time is an extraordinary collection of oral testimonies about the lives of eighteenth-century Saramakas, Afro-American maroons who escaped from slavery and settled in the tropical rain forest of Suriname. Proverbs, songs, prayers, genealogical nuggets, and contemporary engravings are woven into a fascinating interpretation of past events. They contain moving evocations of daily life two centuries ago — battles and love stories, political rivalries and ritual celebrations. And in the hands of the world’s foremost authority on maroon societies, they become a key to understanding the most striking aspect of modern Saramaka life: a people’s consciousness of living within history, shaped by the deeds of their ancestors and shaping the lives of their own descendants.


Half of each page in First-Time is devoted to direct transcriptions of the words of individual Saramakas, pieced together to reveal the order and coherence of their historiography. Price’s commentaries placing the Saramaka accounts into broader social, intellectual, and historical contexts appear directly below the translations. His unique presentation not only preserves the integrity of both oral and documentary historical accounts but also unites them in a meditation on the role of history in modern life.


“With a fine eye for detail, a scholar’s touch, and a sense of compassion, Price offers us a double account of Saramaka history. He gained the confidence and friendship of living Saramakas, and they offered him their most secret and powerful memories. Thus we are allowed to witness, as closely as anyone shall, slaves escaping, surviving, and forging a new sense of themselves in a harsh environment. To this vivid account Price juxtaposes the Western historical view. By preserving in writing now-flagging oral memories, Price serves both the Western and the Saramaka communities. Distant figures become our companions and distant events our concern in this fresh and distinctive book.”
–Stephen Gudeman, University of Minnesota


First-Time is evidence of the fact that acute political and epistemological self-consciousness need not lead to ethnographic self-absorption, or to the conclusion that it is impossible to know anything certain about other people. Rather, it leads to a concrete sense of why a Saramaka folktale … teaches that ‘knowledge is power, and that one must never reveal all of what one knows.'”
–James Clifford, in Writing Culture