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Free People of Color: Inside the African American Community.

Free People of Color is the first sustained effort at analyzing the free Africa American communities of the antebellum North since Leon Litwack's pioneering North of Slavery published over thirty years ago. As James Oliver Horton states the book "is a progress report, a preview of work that is ongoing." (vii) It consists of nine essays, six of which have appeared elsewhere. Free People of Color is an important, though problematic, work, one which updates and summarizes a good deal of disparate material. It draws upon much social history scholarship which has appeared over the course of the last two decades, particularly that advanced initially by Theodore Hershberg through the Philadelphia Social History Project, and continued by, among others, John Blassingame, Ira Berlin, Gary Nash, Charles Blockson, Floyd Miller, and Horton himself in his earlier work--with Lois Horton--on free blacks in Boston, Black Bostonians (1979).

What makes this latest effort so singularly important is Horton's emphasis upon the diversity, the variegation, and the "significant divisions" within the free black community itself. (15) Horton believes these divisions were mainly a result of "economic and social pressures from outside [the black communities], complicated by racial prejudice" but also owing to internally generated strife over gender issues, tensions inhering from the pull of the unique double consciousness of a developing racial and national identity many blacks were experiencing and grappling with for the first time, and disagreement among African Americans over strategic political direction. (199) The result is a mor richly textured view of the flee black antebellum community and the lives they led, one which does not view African Americans as marching in lock-step unity-- misperception (and misrepresentation Horton argues) many scholars advanced in the 1970s in their attempts to balance earlier, equally distorted views office black communities.

Indeed, the examples of division abound in Free People of Color, from blacks debating whether to protest slavery violently or through humanitarian appeal (i a sense presaging the resistance versus accommodation debate of Du Bois and Washington several decades later), to the split over colonization efforts, to the complications of hierarchical racial status due to the gradations of skin color within the black community itself (reflected in Horton's examination of mulatto self-image and status in antebellum Boston, Cincinnati, and Buffalo). All this ultimately points to a community that not only had to resist attack from without, but also occasionally seemed ready to rend itself asunder internally. Horton, an African American, acknowledges that these have been difficult conclusions for him to reach, but to do less would constitute a "disrespect for African American history" and he would thus "miss the opportunity to discover a fully usable past." (200) The key for the free black community was, as Horton explains, subsuming these internal differences at critical moments in order to unite and agree upon, at the very least, the immediate end of slavery, full civil and political rights, and educational and economic opportunities commensurate with their status as American citizens.

Despite the richer picture Horton has painted, nevertheless he could have gone and should go still further if indeed these are simply preliminary findings. Th geographical limitations the author imposes hamper this work significantly and expose it in its starkest form as unfinished and adumbrative; Free People of Color is a synthesis that is ahead of the monographic efforts upon which all good syntheses must feed and sustain themselves. For example, despite some comment on the Underground Railroad in Ohio and the lack of organized public militancy by San Francisco blacks, the preponderance of this study is confined to the experience of northern and eastern urban blacks. This focus, necessarily excludes midwestern and western blacks, both rural and urban--mainly because little research has appeared hitherto--and points to the glaring necessity of additional work (which should wisely take a cue from Horton's methods and approaches), on the antebellum African American experience in these areas. Considering that the new Western scholars have noted that the history of their region was marked by a collision of a number of cultures--even as early as the antebellum period in many places, not simply California--there is, as such, muc more history waiting to be uncovered and written, particularly regarding non-urban free blacks. It is surprising, too, that Horton did not make more use of slave narratives. Harriet Jacobs, for example, whose Incidents in the Life o a Slave Girl both complements and complicates Frederick Douglass's more famous narrative (which Horton cites frequently), is glaringly conspicuous by her absence. Jacobs, a mulatto, was very clear in her views on misogyny and racism--both in the North and South--and experienced directly the conflicting multiple identities dictated by gender, color, and nationality that Horton has devoted several careful and thoughtful chapters to characterizing and addressing.

These cavils notwithstanding, Free People of Color is a good and necessary book one that should spur further work--based on the social and community history models and approaches which Horton and others have marshalled to such great effect. His concluding chapters on the interaction of German and Irish immigrants with free blacks in antebellum Buffalo and his brief exploration entitled "Race, Occupation, and Literacy in Reconstruction Washington, D.C.," provide superb and imaginative models of social history. Horton's writing, overall, is lucid, vigorous, and provocative. One hopes the author stays true t his word and that there is still much more to follow.

Keith Edgerton Washington State University
COPYRIGHT 1994 Journal of Social History
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Author:Edgerton, Keith
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1994
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