- Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation by Rebecca J. Scott and Jean M. Hébrard
Toward the end of this book's tantalizing prologue, the authors describe their work as "micro-history set in motion" (4). Tracing several generations of a single family across multiple locations, the authors acknowledge that the Atlantic world is hardly a microcosmic setting, yet they insist that "the deepest analysis may emerge from close attention to the particular" (5). This type of detail-oriented analysis is exactly what Rebecca Scott and Jean Hébrard undertake and accomplish in Freedom Papers. In order to tell a story that encompasses West Africa, Haiti, Cuba, the United States, France, Belgium, Mexico, and England, they have unearthed a stunning array of sources resulting from exhaustive research in governmental, ecclesiastical, financial, legal, military, and educational records (among other sources), crafting a narrative from documents as small and particular as a signature on a bill of sale or the letterhead of a piece of stationery.
The story begins with an Atlantic crossing in the late eighteenth century, introducing us to Rosalie, a Senegambian woman enslaved in Saint-Domingue, "recorded on paper not as an individual but as a commodity" (15). Passing through the Haitian Revolution, exile in Cuba, and insecure freedom, we arrive in New Orleans with one of Rosalie's daughters, who eventually marries a man named Jacques Tinchant; both bride and groom were of mixed European and African descent, and Freedom Papers soon becomes the story of the six Tinchant sons and their assorted forays into a transnational cigar business. It is in these business endeavors that Scott and Hébrard uncover "a complex exercise in rhetorical composition and self-presentation" (167); the brothers "pushed and pulled against the boundaries of nationality," the authors write, "experimenting with a sequence of alternate affiliations"—drawing upon a "Creole image" of "sunshine, palm trees, and a bronzed complexion" (163), for example, or choosing to project "a generalized French-ness" (166). Among the most intriguing of the family stories are those of Joseph and Édouard Tinchant, both of whom worked tirelessly for the rights of African Americans and served in the Sixth Louisiana, the black regiment that defended New Orleans during the Civil War. Yet Joseph soon refashioned himself as a Mexican citizen, selling his cigars as Don José Tinchant y Gonzales, and later became a Belgian citizen. As for Édouard, he safeguarded his French citizenship papers and allowed himself, after the war, to be designated as white by the census taker in Mobile, Alabama. [End Page 132]
Like the best microhistories, this one makes no claim to the typicality of its protagonists. Indeed, what is atypical here (although not quite stated as such) are the papers signaled in the book's title, which point to an implicit argument: the simultaneous power and fragility of documenting freedom, nationality, and citizenship. Interwoven into the family story is a parallel narrative of the literal documents: the "single sheet separated from the record book" (38), the significance of deciphered marginalia, the letter "written in English, typed in purple ink and signed with a flourish" (167). Here and there, we read a sentence like, "Then he stopped, inserted a period, and began again using a different preposition" (55). I loved the visibility of this analysis and interpretation. Not surprisingly, these sorts of meticulous readings require Scott and Hébrard to adopt a vocabulary of caution, ranging from "almost certainly" and "could well have" to "perhaps" to "we cannot know for certain"; I loved these careful phrasings, too, reflecting back the malleable language of the sources themselves, most especially with regard to designations of status, racial classification, and nationality, whether self-proclaimed or imposed by others.
If the book's methodology is pleasingly visible, the overarching argument is more muted. In the end, the authors extol the family's strength and courage in overcoming unfreedom and racism in their many and varied manifestations. "Across three generations," they write, "as...