- Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915
Mitch Kachun's thoughtfully conceived and assiduously researched Festivals of Freedom makes a valuable contribution to the bourgeoning literature on American commemorative traditions. The survey of celebrations of the dismantling of slavery from the 1808 abolition of the Atlantic slave trade through the early twentieth century amply demonstrates the value of close attention to the form as well as the thematic focus of retrospective rituals. Though the emancipation effected by the Civil War was the central triumph of liberty in the period Kachun covers, the war years and immediate aftermath occupy an ambivalent position in his narrative as "at once the apogee of the Freedom Day tradition and the beginning of its dissolution" (146). That irony illuminates the complex transitions shaped by the war.
Kachun shows that the freedom festival was a frequently changing palimpsest of African American identity. Adapting aspects of eighteenth-century Negro Election Day rituals (which in turn often reflected significant African influences) and July 4 celebrations, remembrance of the prohibition of the slave trade emerged during the early republic as an important forum for black oratory. Though the observances waned by the 1820s, commemorations of emancipation in New York provided a bridge toward a major annual event marking abolition in the West Indies. During the antebellum period, August 1 ceremonies attracted large biracial audiences in communities throughout the North and provided a useful vehicle for the antislavery movement as well as a setting in which African Americans explored the [End Page 96] meanings of their current freedom, such as the extent to which it should properly be and could safely be expressed by revelry.
Emancipation in the Civil War expanded vastly on this foundation, most obviously in spectacular commemorations across the South, but also introduced forces of fragmentation. As communities often marked the date on which the bondage of local slaves ended, and as January 1 was an impractical date for outdoor celebrations in much of the North, the coherence of August 1 rituals gave way to variations that Kachun traces with evidence ranging from Key West to San Francisco, an overview helpfully supplemented with a chapter focused on the important case of April 16 observances in Washington, D.C. He finds that postwar observances deepened debates among African Americans about patterns of festivity and gentility. The observances also featured discussion about black allegiance to the Republican Party and the extent to which remembrance of slavery and emancipation should form the core of black identity. These debates intersected with social contests for leadership, notably between African Americans free in the antebellum era and those freed by the war and later between the war generation and its heirs. Without the unifying political purpose that had helped to sustain the August 1 commemorations, the tradition gradually contracted.
Festivals of Freedom offers a stimulating complement to David Blight's magisterial Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001). While Blight expertly sketched a range of opinions among African Americans about preserving collective memory of slavery and abolition, his emphasis was on the ways in which a white consensus marginalized the emancipationist legacy of the Civil War without entirely erasing a past that still offers regenerative power. In contrast, Kachun is equally aware of the extent to which postwar Southern whites actively suppressed celebrations of emancipation and the extent to which postwar Northern whites lost interest in its commemoration, but his focus is on African Americans' attitudes toward the custom, including their role in its decline. Although he notes that their withdrawal partly measured the frustration of celebrating freedom in the age of Jim Crow, he stresses the degree to which it reflected the rise of a modern society-influenced by African Americans through mass migration, dance, music, and the historical perspectives of intellectuals like Alain Locke and Carter Woodson—that replaced retrospective civic rituals like Freedom Day with new urban entertainments, new political structures, and new conceptions of tradition. For Kachun, the...