- Black Identity & Black Protest in the Antebellum North
Born as a response to the emerging civil rights struggle of post World War II America, the scholarship on black protest movements has undergone considerable maturation over the past thirty years. Moving beyond early celebratory histories, this newer scholarship sought to contextualize the centuries-long freedom struggle by locating its origins in early expressions of resistance, especially to the institution of slavery. Slave community scholars like Lawrence Levine and John Blassingame (themselves influenced by the community and cultural studies movement of the 1960s and 1970s) located African Americans’ resistance to slavery not only in open rebellions (à la Nat Turner) or work slowdowns but also in the creation of a unique and vibrant African-American folk culture that expressed black protest. The concept of agency resides at the heart of such scholarship and is a term meant to indicate the manner in which marginalized historical actors attempted to resist oppression. Over this same time period, a strong leftist critique emerged among scholars influenced by the nationalist component of the black freedom struggle. These scholars often engaged their historical subjects directly and morally, questioning the genuine commitment of historical actors to the ongoing freedom struggle and criticizing some past black leaders for assimilating into a fundamentally corrupt and racist western [End Page 1109] caste system. In a bold new monograph, Patrick Rael takes on the fundamental assumptions residing at the heart of both the community/cultural studies movement and the black nationalist critique of black America.
Departing from the major thrust of slave-community studies, Rael moves the primary site of historical inquiry from the plantation to the urban North. This choice also serves as a departure from an analysis focusing primarily on the folk culture created by slaves to a self-consciously crafted elite-bourgeois intellectual movement created by free blacks in the antebellum North. Rael’s objective is not only to recapture the mind-set of black intellectual thought but also to demonstrate how such thought powerfully shaped black identity and black protest in antebellum America. Rael argues that the gradual disappearance of slavery, relatively small numbers of African Americans, and lack of a uniform system of oppression in the antebellum North led free blacks there to generate a broad, common identity with all peoples of African descent. While free black communities in the American South, Caribbean, or Latin America could not champion the rights of the enslaved without threatening their own independence, Rael insists that, “the North’s very position on the edge of the diaspora enabled free blacks to embrace all people of African descent without the troubling implications such a move presented” for free black communities elsewhere to the south (15). Rael dismisses the slave South, and by extension the folk culture of African Americans, as the primary site of agency for black protest thought in America. Instead, Rael believes that the construction of a nascent pan-African black identity should be viewed primarily as an elite process. “Of all free African-descended people in the diaspora,” Rael concludes that free blacks in the North “were among the first and most ardent champions of the rights of the enslaved” (14).
However, shorn of direct connection to either slavery or free black communities to the south, Rael contends that African Americans in the antebellum North had no choice but to be steeped in the larger intellectual milieu of a northern culture. As a result, free blacks drew upon the prevailing ideological landscape, fashioning a protest ideology that provided a strategy for challenging racial inequality. “Through self-conscious acts of public political speech” (45) black elites employed the tropes of racial uplift, elevation, and respectability as tools to be used in an assault on white supremacist arguments of black inferiority. African-American leaders called on the black masses to obtain education, control their vices, develop a more dignified social presentation, and gain more respectable occupations as a means of countering prevailing racist stereotypes. “[B]lack elites determined that,” Rael observes, “all unjust prejudice aside...