Emily West. Family and Freedom: People of Color in the Antebellum South.
Emily West's book examines a set of 181 free people of color in the antebellum South who petitioned either for continued residency in their state or for their own enslavement. The two categories of petitions at first glance seem starkly different, but West writes that both in fact flowed from similar motives. Other historians who have looked at enslavement petitions in particular have suggested that those seeking voluntary enslavement were seeking refuge from impoverishment or, alternately, that they had been convinced by pro-slavery literature that Africans should prefer slavery over freedom. However, West argues that these traditional explanations better reflect the views of modern historians than they do the motives of the petitioners themselves. For example, antebellum slave owners celebrated enslavement petitions as proof that blacks loved being in bondage. However, West contends that free people of color who asked to be enslaved were not seeking some idealized master-slave relationship that existed only in southern fiction, nor were most petitioners driven to slavery as a last refuge from poverty. Instead, petitioners were pursuing every possible means of staying in their current locations for personal reasons: the proximity of friends, family, and communities. During the antebellum period, southern states began requiring newly emancipated slaves to leave their borders. Residency petitions were one way of fighting to stay in place, and enslavement requests were the most extreme manifestation of this unwillingness to move. The idea of voluntary enslavement contradicts the modern narrative that slaves sought freedom at any cost. West shows that some free people of color did not see such a sharp dividing line between slavery and freedom, but instead saw only differing degrees of racial oppression. Therefore, some of these freed men and women were willing to subject themselves to slavery again in order to stay near their enslaved families, near loved ones (even in some cases white lovers), or in their long established communities.
Overall, Family or Freedom is written gracefully and builds its arguments logically. One small criticism stems from the long introduction that presents but only briefly discusses five tables with demographic data about petitioners. This information might have been more useful if interspersed throughout later chapters where petitions are analyzed in greater depth. Indeed, West seems to recognize this by sometimes telling the reader to turn back to the introduction to see various tables relevant to the analysis in later chapters. Aside from this minor drawback, the book is filled with intriguing case studies and stories of free people of color who went to great lengths to stay near their communities and loved ones. The book contains dozens of gripping human stories of people facing a decision between, as the title of the book indicates, family or freedom. Teachers will find ample material for use in lectures or assignments. West's study as a whole would be very valuable reading in undergraduate and graduate courses that examine race relations in the antebellum South, concepts of slavery and freedom, or family history.
Andrew C. Lannen
Stephen F. Austin State University
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|Author:||Lannen, Andrew C.|
|Publication:||Teaching History: A Journal of Methods|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2013|
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