Emily West’s recent addition to the scholarship concerning the free-black experience in the antebellum era is both beautifully written and extremely compelling. Revolving around the issue of enslavement and residency requests from free people of color, West’s central thesis advances the argument that such petitions were made, first and foremost, in order to maintain familial ties. As West suggests, “Placing [End Page 254] their families first, enslavement petitioners offer illuminating insights into marital and other familial ties across the slave-free divide” (p. 2). While painfully aware that those who petitioned southern states for residency or enslavement were sacrificing much, West contends that most other options presented movement of some kind, away from kith and kin and the place that they called home. Subject to de jure and de facto measures concerning mobility and migration throughout this period, which exposed families and communities to fragmentation and heartbreak, it is perhaps no wonder, as West points out, that some free blacks “merely wanted to be still” (p. 9).
This book is long overdue in terms of the existing historical scholarship, which has tended to approach free blacks as a separate category in the antebellum South, rather than locating them within the complex stories of slavery and freedom. West also contributes to the existing historiographical material concerning the workings of the legal system in the Old South and its relationship with free people of color. In addition, and more importantly, West provides a human story, building a fragmentary picture of people’s lives and the affective relationships they held dear. This book is the result of painstaking archival work across several southern states and a trawl through endless census material, which is capable of providing only a basic snapshot in time. As such, West employs a modicum of historical imagination to reconstruct the histories of those who have left little trace of their experiences.
The analysis begins with a consideration of free blacks and the law, charting the legislative measures passed in each southern state during the antebellum period dealing with the removal or enslavement of free people of color. As West notes, these varied from state to state, and some, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Mississippi for example, had no official legislation on the matter. Yet such issues were hotly debated across the South, particularly in the 1850s as sectional tensions heightened. For those states which failed to legislate on the matter, they still passed “ever more hostile laws directed against free persons of color as concerns about their presence grew” (p. 47). In [End Page 255] subsequent chapters, West delivers a sophisticated analysis of the porous boundaries between slavery and freedom for African Americans of the era, demonstrating with startling clarity the networks of affective relationships that existed between slave and free and black and white, and why, despite the consequences, free blacks may have submitted a request for enslavement. The text also grapples with some of the problems with the previous historical scholarship, which, as West demonstrates, lacks the perceptions of free blacks towards both state expulsion and enslavement. That free blacks could not disentangle their opinions on such matters from their affective relationships and all they held dear has, until now, been a notable absence in the existing historiography.
While West faces a tough challenge in fighting off claims from proslavery theorists of the era, who posited the argument that petitions for enslavement enhanced claims that slavery was a “positive good,” she faces this admirably. Her focus on the familial bonds that existed across the boundaries of slavery and freedom heightens our awareness of the complexities at the heart of the southern slave system. Moreover, it articulates with heartbreaking simplicity the lengths to which people were prepared to go to in order to keep their intimate lives and emotional worlds intact.
Rebecca Fraser teaches in the School of American Studies at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, United Kingdom. Her most recent monograph is Gender, Race, and Family in Nineteenth...