In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community, and Protest Among Northern Free Blacks, 1700-1860.
Much has changed in the world of African American Studies since Leon Litwack published his important volume North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860. (Indeed, that world did not exist as an accepted field of study when the book appeared in 1961.) "Professor Litwack has performed a notable service," John Hope Franklin wrote at the time, by providing a "clear, lucid account of the Northern phase of the story." A full generation later we can welcome another lucid telling of the story from James and Lois Horton, two scholars who have already contributed greatly to our understanding of life among free blacks in the North before the Civil War. In Hope of Liberty (the title is a conscious echo of The Hope of Liberty, a book of poetry written by an enslaved North Carolinian named George Moses Horton and published in 1829) reminds us how far we have come over the past thirty-eight years in fleshing out this complex narrative.
For one thing, recent scholarship allows us to pick up the story at an earlier stage. Litwack reached back briefly into the Revolutionary era, as does Harry Reed's 1994 book Platform for Change: The Foundation of the Northern Free Black Community, but the Hortons span the whole colonial era in several opening chapters. They remind us that many colonists of color had been free for generations and had assimilated into the Anglo community around them. For example, when James Forten, the son of a sailmaker, was born in Pennsylvania in 1766, he was already a fourth-generation African American, and he represented the third generation in a free black family. Other black colonists spoke Spanish, French, Dutch, or German, depending upon their location, and many went to sea, as Jeffrey Bolster demonstrates in his new book Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail (1997). Crispus Attucks and Paul Cuffe illustrate this latter point - and another important theme that has not yet been sufficiently explored: They were both of combined African and Indian ancestry, as were thousands of other Americans before the Revolution.
Linked by labor, marriage, and common interest to poor and marginalized colonists of all races, acculturated free blacks played a significant role in the protests and unrest preceding Independence and in the war that followed. In the closing decade of the eighteenth century, however, the North American slave trade reached an all-time high, fully sanctioned by the young government of the United States. As a result, many blacks who acquired freedom under the North's new laws of gradual emancipation had personal knowledge of the old world. Drawing on the work of Sterling Stuckey, William Piersen, and others, the Hortons emphasize the African aspects of Pinkster and Election Day celebrations that were common occurrences during this era. But by the time African colonization became a pressing option, the identity of most Northern blacks was too deeply tied to the United States, and their children dedicated themselves to the cause of emancipation. Like Litwack, the Hortons stop at 1860, so we are unable to savor the drama and pathos of the freedom decade.
More striking than the broad chronological sweep of the book is the richness of individual stories, many of which document the crude forms of discrimination that prevailed throughout the North. (Oregon, for instance, rejected African Americans in its initial constitution and was still denying blacks the vote in 1860, as were nine other Northern states.) Already in 1961 Litwack was able to provide an impressive bibliographical essay of more than twenty pages, but the literature has expanded dramatically since then. Think how much more we know about Phillis Wheatley, for example, or David Walker or Sojourner Truth. The Hortons have not only contributed to this general growth; they have monitored and absorbed it, so that their endnotes, covering more than fifty pages, are a treasure trove of new and old sources, familiar and obscure. Sometimes they cite only a volume without adding specific page references; still, the book's greatest strength is the way in which it has drawn together and synthesized this growing body of work.
What weakness there is lies in a number of factual errors that should have been caught, since these mistakes will be passed on to numerous unwary readers and researchers. In South Carolina, race slavery had not "emerged almost full blown by the 1660s" (colonization did not begin until 1670), and that colony's "majority black population" did not end in 1750; it persisted through the Revolutionary War. It is equally incorrect to say that in Pennsylvania, by 1725, "almost one of every three inhabitants of the Quaker colony was of African descent"; the figure was closer to one of every twelve. Similarly, the 2,868 slaves in New York City in 1800 made up 45 percent, not 4.74 percent, of the port's black population. Perhaps such misleading sentences can be corrected in the paperback edition of this excellent book.
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|Author:||Wood, Peter H.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1999|
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