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American Quarterly 57.1 (2005) 279-288

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Celebrating Freedom and Ethnicity

Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915. By Mitch Kachun. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003. 339 pages. $39.95 (cloth).
Japanese American Celebration and Conflict: A History of Ethnic Identity and Festival, 1934-1990. By Lon Kurashige. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. 274 pages. $18.95 (paper).

In recent years, public celebrations have become an important site for scholars to examine nationalism, conflicts, identities, and memories.1 Anthropologists have long considered the importance of rituals, carnivals, and rites of passage in examining the values of community, nation, and people.2 In the last two decades, scholars in American studies, history, literature, cultural studies, ethnic studies, and performance studies have followed their counterparts in anthropology to study the meaning of public rituals and celebrations.

Mitch Kachun's Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915 and Lon Kurashige's Japanese American Celebration and Conflict: A History of Ethnic Identity and Festival, 1934-1990 are groundbreaking new studies that analyze cultural productions to illuminate how minorities used the public space to contest and challenge American national culture and identity. These two volumes are the first book-length works on the history of African American emancipation celebrations and Nisei Week festivals, respectively. While Kachun turns critical attention to the national scale of freedom day celebrations, Kurashige provides a nuanced analysis of a local ethnic celebration in Los Angeles. Although each author pays attention to his particular historical subjects, the works have some similar trajectories. By using an interdisciplinary approach, each author effectively establishes the critical method of analyzing the complexity and contradictory meanings in public celebrations. Informed by ethnic studies, both authors deftly explore how nonwhite groups contested the public space to reconfigure their racialization and ethnicization by crafting a favorable public memory. Ceremonies served to ease racial tensions and to forge a group identity. [End Page 279] Similarly, both authors reject the assimilation framework and instead focus on the conflicts internal to each group that were surfaced in the celebration. While Kachun articulates the manifestation of double consciousness in African American communities, Kurashige reveals the failure of biculturalism in thwarting the internment of Japanese Americans. Both authors also address how each group attempted to resolve a difficult past: Kachun analyzes African American ambivalence toward the legacy of slavery, while Kurashige discusses the conflicting views of Japanese Americans on the history of internment.

Drawing upon a diverse array of primary sources, such as archival collections, mainstream and African American newspapers, and African American convention minutes, speeches, and writings, as well as a wide range of secondary sources, Kachun provides an impressive analysis of how African American leaders used freedom celebrations to create a collective memory, to uplift the race, and, more importantly, to claim their political rights. Through dividing the freedom day celebrations into four periods, foundations (1808-1834), maturation (1834-1862), expansion and fragmentation (1862-1870s), and remembrance and amnesia (1870s-1910s), Kachun effectively demonstrates that the changes in the freedom celebrations were an important indication of African American identity formation and of volatile black and white racial relations.

Kachun traces the origin of the freedom day celebrations back to the tradition of slave trade festivals in New England: the outdoor celebrations were a way for bonded African Americans to claim the public space and to articulate political identities, especially in the celebration known as Negro Election Day in both colonial and antebellum periods. While Kachun convincingly argues that the freedom day celebrations broke away from the African-inspired festive performance of the slave trade celebrations to the American version of formal oration in order to indicate that "Africans in the United States, by the 1830s, had become African Americans" (20), it might have been more interesting if Kachun had described more extensively the celebration scenes so that one could more easily discern how these transformations occurred.

The intention of his argument is to link the origin, development, and decline of the freedom day celebrations to the political struggle of...


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