- Beyond Freedom: Disrupting the History of Emancipation ed. by David W. Blight and Jim Downs
This book comprises eleven essays in three sections. Part 1, "From Slavery to Freedom," highlights freedpeople's marriage rituals, the effects of freedom on the expansion of the federal government, and the need to incorporate slavery and prior Atlantic emancipations into U.S. emancipation studies. Part 2, "The Politics of Freedom," interprets the language of freedom and contests over democracy. Part 3, "Meditations on the Meaning of Freedom," presents personal accounts of working in the field and the archives. While identifying historiographical patterns and suggesting new directions, the volume's chief [End Page 188] aim is "to better understand the emancipation of four million people during the Civil War and Reconstruction" (p. x). The authors pose new questions about gender, kinship, violence, geographical and chronological boundaries, and the effects of slavery and freedom on the construction of American empire. They explicitly use their findings to address current, and strikingly familiar, limits to freedom and equality. Most address the dominant paradigm of freedom and its multiple meanings, arguing both for and against its ruling influence in the field.
In Part 1, Richard Newman's "The Grammar of Emancipation: Putting Final Freedom in Context" explains how interpretations of earlier emancipations informed hopes and fears of the potential consequences of African American freedom. Emancipation's opponents argued that black freedom had proved to undermine white freedom, while abolitionists focused on the need for black uplift. Susan O'Donovan, in "Writing Slavery into Freedom's Stories," calls for greater inclusion of slavery as the foundation for African American politics and culture. Steven Hahn's A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (Cambridge, Mass., 2003) exemplifies this approach, but few scholars have followed his lead. Appreciating the extent of slave mobility and the cosmopolitan culture it created, rather than focusing on literate freedpeople, reshapes our understanding of freedpeople's worldviews. Brenda E. Stevenson's "'Us never had no big funerals or weddin's on de place': Ritualizing Black Marriage in the Wake of Freedom" establishes legal marriage as central to freedom's meaning. Whether substantial or humble, weddings marked a symbolic end to slavery's humiliating domestic abuses. Chandra Manning, in "Emancipation as State Building from the Inside Out," shows how direct civic contact between freedpeople and the state enabled the former to press the latter to protect rights to mobility, property, safety, and judicial justice.
In Part 2, Kate Masur's "The Problem of Equality in the Age of Emancipation" asks why historians reflexively focus on freedom but not equality. Inequality's markers can be identified in public policy, in debates on the state's role in social life, and in etiquette. Opponents of equality charged African Americans with wanting social equality, a dog whistle that obscured the actual demand for racial equality. Justin Behrend, in "When Neighbors Turn against Neighbors: Irregular Warfare and the Crisis of Democracy in the Civil War Era," uses the timing and location of paramilitary violence between 1850 and 1880 to show that Reconstruction-era violence, while partly an extension of war, also sprang from localized violence among acquaintances. Such violence increased dramatically, weakened democracy, and made the young nation-state's viability more tenuous. James Oakes's "When Everybody Knew" demonstrates that most people, especially slaves, knew that a Republican administration coupled with secession meant that war was imminent and would accelerate abolition. Constitutional antislavery activists—who knew they lacked constitutional power to attack what was a state institution—focused on gradually weakening slavery instead.
In Part 3, Thavolia Glymph's "Black Women and Children in the Civil War: Archive Notes" documents the horrific conditions of tens of thousands of women and children in wartime camps. White observers rarely empathized with freedpeople's desperate conditions, instead blaming them for...