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James O. and Lois E. Horton. Hard Road to Freedom: The Story of African America.

New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2001. 406 pp. $22.00.

This is a telling synthesis of African American history from its origins on the West Coast of Africa to the close of the twentieth century. The Hortons' story is organized around roughly three interwoven themes: the denial of freedom, the development of strategies for achieving freedom, and the impact of African American culture on the culture of the nation. As suggested by the title, the quest for freedom stands at the core of this synthesis, but the Hortons show how this theme changed over time and space. During the early colonial era, African Americans shared an unfree status with large numbers of European indentured servants and Native Americans. Within this somewhat fluid environment, African Americans forged alliances across the color line with both whites and indigenous people. During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, however, the colonies increasingly defined blacks or Africans as slaves for life. They instituted color-based slave codes and gradually closed off earlier channels of multiracial resistance to social injustice. As Africans became slaves for life under English law and social practices, African Americans devised new strategies for their liberation.

In careful detail, the Hortons examine how the American revolution, the Civil War, the rise of Jim Crow, and the modern Civil Rights Movement all changed the context of the black freedom struggle and underlay the rise of new mechanisms for social change. Despite efforts to bar blacks from participating in the American Revolution, and later the Civil War, for example, African Americans defined both conflicts in their own terms as wars of liberation and fights to end human bondage. When the promise of freedom and full citizenship failed after both wars, they nonetheless took the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the new republic and used them to their own advantage. African Americans repeatedly pointed out the contradiction between the principles of freedom and democracy for all whites and the sanctioning of slavery and partial citizenship for blacks.

Hard Road to Freedom not only analyzes the shifting nature of the black freedom struggle within the context of economic, political and cultural changes in the nation, but it also addresses significant differences in the black experience between and within regions. During the early colonial era, enslaved African Americans were an integral part of the economy of the New England and Northern colonies, but they faced fewer legal and extralegal constraints than their Upper South and Deep South counterparts. Such inter- and intra-regional distinctions persisted through the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. Moreover, the Hortons illuminate the growth of a free black population and the gradual emergence of status and even color distinctions within the African American community before the onset of the Civil War. Such distinctions--rooted in the era of enslavement--would gradually give rise to new forms of class and status distinctions during the emancipation period.

Despite the uneven commitment of whites to the struggle against slavery, and later Jim Crow, the Hortons show how the African American freedom struggle retained a small core of white allies over time--abolitionists, radical republicans, populists, New Deal liberals, and modern Civil Rights activists. Finally, Hard Road to Freedom convincingly argues that the African American freedom struggle not only resulted in a broadening range of political freedom over time, but influenced the politics and culture of the nation. African American culture--music, language, and foodways--often became indistinguishable from United States culture.

Hard Road to Freedom is a fine synthesis. I not only recommend it to teachers of survey courses in African American and U.S. cultural, social, and political history, but to the general reader seeking an informed assessment of African American life since the advent of the international slave trade.

Joe W. Trotter

Carnegie Mellon University
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Author:Trotter, Joe W.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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