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  • To Live an Antislavery Life: Personal Politics and the Antebellum Black Middle Class by Erica L. Ball
  • Scott Hancock (bio)

Antislavery, Class, Conduct, Self improvement

To Live an Antislavery Life: Personal Politics and the Antebellum Black Middle Class. By Erica L. Ball. (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2012. Pp. 175. Paper, $22.95.)

Erica Ball's monograph validates the utility of tightly focused monographs and specialization within the discipline of history. She delivers [End Page 582] an insightful explication of what motivated the antebellum black middle class and, more importantly, how African Americans merged the personal and political. Building on the work of scholars like Patrick Rael on the political identities and goals of antebellum black northerners, Ball challenges simplistic interpretations of the antebellum black middle class. Instead of seeing them as ideologically conservative during the early republic era and converting to a radical perspective in the antebellum era only after realizing how deeply entrenched white racist ideologies had become, Ball argues that black elites' political thinking and strategies radicalized dominant American narratives of personal conduct and republican citizenship. She questions whether black separatists' rhetoric should be correlated with radicalism, and if black elites' integrationist rhetoric, with its attendant emphasis on moral reform, uplift, and domesticity, should be equated with conservatism. For antebellum black elites, the personal was political, and the political was radical activism.

Ball labels black elite advice about personal behavior, ubiquitous in black media such as newspapers, slave narratives, and convention speeches, as black conduct discourse. The first chapter's focus on the discourse of respectability sets up the overall argument. Advice about respectability was far more than just talk; black elites made it a central part of identity and activism. Understanding identity and action in conjunction is critical for understanding the black middle class. To them, identity, heavily influenced by an ideology of respectability, was inseparable from activism on behalf of free and enslaved African Americans. That inseparability made their ideology potentially radical by requiring persistent activism. Personal integrity could not be maintained otherwise. White northerners sensed this; white satire and mob violence frequently targeted black endeavors for self-improvement. Ball suggests that the articulation and practice of ideals radical enough to provoke white responses laid the foundation for black middle-class protest in the twentieth century.

The black elite's use of gendered ideologies to further activism forms a consistent theme through the next three chapters. Black men's pursuit of respectable vocations was expected to better them and their families and facilitate upward mobility and independence. As was the case for white discourse, black elites emphasized the centrality of the self-made man to the progress of the republic—but for African Americans, a self-made man was one engaged in the fight for freedom and equality. Slave narratives in particular helped fashion this image, and made progress [End Page 583] from the "low origins" of enslavement to positions of prominence a source of pride and manhood.

Manhood also meant black men had an obligation to choose their wives wisely in order to have a family that would raise the next generation to maintain the fight. Marriage represented an opportunity to foster a kind of black republican motherhood and "symbolized the final step in the ascendance from slavery to freedom, from the dependence of enslavement to independence" (88) And only with independence—of thought and behavior as well as of one's physical being—could a black family live an effective antislavery life.

Black conduct discourse could have limited black women. But Ball argues that unlike white discourses of domesticity, black writers democratized black women's roles. Because the black middle class typically lived among the black working poor, they understood the economic realities facing most black women, and constructed a discourse that redefined and broadened the domestic sphere so it was open to black women of all vocations. Thus, black writers "created an image of black femininity that challenged the key gender constructions at the heart of the institution of slavery" (95) and subverted mainstream discourses of republican motherhood.

The last chapter caps the argument nicely. Stretching the definition of militancy as far as possible, Ball casts black elites...


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