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  • “Undeniably There”: Rethinking Black Presence in the American Past
  • Elizabeth McHenry (bio)
The Roots of African American Identity: Memory and History in Antebellum Free Communities. By Elizabeth Rauh Bethel. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. 242 pages. $39.95.
In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community and Protest Among Northern Free Blacks, 1700–1860. By James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. 340 pages. $35.00.

Until relatively recently, our antebellum, African American ancestors have been stereotyped as a monolithic mass: according to the narrative outlined in most high school American history classes, before the Civil War all black people in the United States were enslaved, illiterate and without significant distinctions in background, attitudes, experience, power or culture. In the past three decades, the fiction of this perspective has been exposed repeatedly as scholars of African American history, literature and culture have uncovered archival sources that allow new and different stories to be told about the lives of early African Americans in the United States. In the 1970s, studies of slave communities in the rural South such as John W. Blassingame’s The Slave Community (1972), Eugene D. Genovese’s Roll Jordan Roll (1974) and Herbert Gutman’s The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom (1976) offered powerful evidence of the great diversity that existed even within the common experience of slavery. These have been [End Page 437] followed more recently by investigations of African American culture in the nominally “free” North, where the earliest black Americans often enjoyed a surprising degree of independence even as they were subjected to the cruelty of segregation and discrimination and denied the rights of full citizens.

In addition to providing crucial counterweight to the more numerous histories of southern slavery, the cumulative effect of these studies of free blacks in the urban North has been to insist that we rethink the stereotypes and assumptions we have sustained about African Americans and their history. Exemplary scholarship such as Frances Smith Foster’s Written By Herself (1993), George A. Levesque’s Black Boston (1994), Gary Nash’s Forging Freedom (1988), Carla Peterson’s Doers of the Word (1995), Dorothy Sterling’s We Are Your Sisters (1984) and Julie Winch’s Philadelphia’s Black Elite (1988) have done this in part by simply calling into question the old adage, “In the beginning was slavery.” 1 By exposing communities of free blacks in the urban North as intricate geographic, social and psychological spaces, these studies and others insist that there has never been a single version of the black experience. They also challenge our understanding of the dynamics of early American life generally. Documenting the ways that free blacks formed strong, viable communities from which they established and exercised their identities, these studies and others echo Leonard Curry’s emphasis in The Free Black in Urban America, 1800–1850: “However much they were repressed, segregated, and restricted, urban blacks were, nevertheless, undeniably there. . . . They could not . . . be wholly excluded” from the workings of the white population. 2 While in some respects, free blacks may have existed on the fringes of European American society, they did not sit passively and wait for their circumstances to change. Neither their views and opinions nor the significance of their cultural, economic and political presence could be ignored. By developing and continually shifting approaches, strategies and venues, colonial and antebellum blacks found ways to sort through the complexities of their dual identities and to make their African American voices heard. They used their voices to call for a substantive democracy: as historian Vincent Harding reminds us, free blacks stood, in the early nineteenth century, as “the foremost proponents of freedom and justice in the nation, demanding of the Constitution more than its slave-holding creators dared to dream, wrestling it toward an integrity that the [Founding] Fathers would not give it.” 3

That James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton wish to reinforce this argument through their most recent study is apparent from the very [End Page 438] beginning of In Hope of Liberty. The story of African Americans “both illustrates and contradicts the promise of America—the principles embodied in the nation’s founding documents...

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