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  • Degrees of Freedom: Louisiana and Cuba after Slavery
  • Alecia Long
Degrees of Freedom: Louisiana and Cuba after Slavery. By Rebecca J. Scott. (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005. Pp. 365. $29.95.)

As Rebecca Scott notes in the introduction of Degrees of Freedom: Louisiana and Cuba after Slavery, in trying to account for and assess the often bleak social, cultural, [End Page 55] and political outcomes for emancipated slaves and their ancestors in the United States, scholars began to produce comparative historical studies on the topic in the post–World War II era. Many of them wondered "whether the legacies of slavery had perhaps played themselves out differently elsewhere" (5). That search for other possibilities bore much fruit over the ensuing decades. One thing that sets Scott's study apart from many others is that, rather than focusing on slavery or the evolution of race relations, she analyzes the "construction of postemancipation society" in the sugar-producing regions of Louisiana and central Cuba (5).

The book's title flows from a metaphor used by physicists and statisticians, both of whom employ the phrase "degrees of freedom" to explain possibility (and its lack) within complex and evolving systems. The possibilities and limits that Scott is interested in exploring are those shaped and experienced by emancipated slaves and their descendants in the two locales. One of her important conclusions is that, in both places, "labor and politics were inextricably linked," thus requiring one to look closely at how the two regimes of sugar production evolved in response to emancipation (1). Because of the relative geographical isolation of the sugar-producing parishes in Louisiana, the overwhelming majority of the workforce remained African-descended, despite the mobility—and the possibility to pursue other types of work—that technically became possible after emancipation. Because of this labor homogeneity, "class position thus continued to map closely onto color categories" (39). Although the early years following the abolition of slavery offered significant hope for social equality among both freedpeople and former free people of color in Louisiana—especially embodied in the state's astoundingly progressive constitution of 1868—by the 1880s those aspirations had been quashed, often brutally. By the end of the nineteenth century, the dominant social, political, and labor systems all rested firmly on a foundation of white supremacy.

In Cuba the process of emancipation took place later and was more drawn out than in Louisiana. Yet the significant difference between the two locales according to Scott is that, while an overpowering ideology of white supremacy emerged in Louisiana, a different kind of transracial patriotism animated the degrees of freedom open to former slaves and people of color in Cuba. Cuba was no racially harmonious paradise, political or otherwise, for emancipated slaves. Yet Scott explains in detail how claims on citizenship were embedded in the vital roles slaves and free people of color played in the ongoing struggles for Cuban independence, and in the heterogeneous work regimes and residency patterns that kept the possibility for social, economic, and even political advancement within the realms of visibility and possibility. [End Page 56]

Scott makes an eloquent and compelling case for the utility and insight to be gained from the close comparison of two unique places she dubs "nearby possible worlds" (2), and her elegant analysis and compelling content show the reader how this was so. Of course, comparative history has the potential to be mechanistic and, therefore, no matter how insightful, a chore for the reader. Scott avoids this trap, not only because she is a graceful writer and a skilled narrative historian but also because she frequently shifts her levels of analysis. Thus, the reader becomes acquainted not only with the structural forces—political, economic, social, and transnational—that shaped the lives of emancipated slaves, but, along the way, one meets a small number of them in person. Scott's judicious use of this dramatis personae is all the more extraordinary because we come not only to be acquainted with the details of freedpeople's lives, but also because we see how the Cuban Revolution and its aftermath, embodied in U.S. intervention, led some of her historical figures...


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