Crime, Race, Slavery, Law, Citizenship
With In the Shadow of the Gallows: Race, Crime, and American Civic Identity, literary scholar Jeannine Marie DeLombard returns to her earlier observation, made in Slavery on Trial: Law, Abolitionism, and Print Culture (Chapel Hill, NC, 2007), that northern antebellum print culture overwhelmingly depicted African Americans as criminals. Drawing on gallows narratives, documents surrounding trials, and fictional accounts, she argues that the popular image of violent and often mindless black criminals reinforced a belief among white Americans that African Americans must be controlled through enslavement or incarceration if not outright expulsion [End Page 585] or execution. These representations dominated the rhetoric and symbolic language through which black activists maneuvered in order to engage a public and make demands for full American rights.
DeLombard explores the interplay of image and agency in the depiction of condemned black convicts. Only when they were on trial did African Americans attain legal personhood, but they found themselves saddled with the responsibilities of citizenship without any of its rights. Popular accounts portrayed these men accepting that responsibility as they faced execution, gaining capacity for citizenship only on their way to the scaffold. Yet, while gallows confession came through white pens, and while DeLombard argues that violation of the law constituted an expression of black agency, black voices often crept through with explicit messages of resistance. Seizing the publicity of the scaffold, such men as Nat Turner condemned the racism that led them to become outlaws engaged in a war against the United States.
The question of black agency in breaking the law created a thorny problem for reformers. DeLombard describes a white public that regarded the crimes of slaves as unthinking violence, placing responsibility on the master. For free blacks, environment replaced the master and charges of mental incompetence denied African Americans autonomy, as exemplified by William Seward's invocation of an insanity defense against the murder charges leveled at William Freeman. Seward's arguments that his client's environment had led to his incapacity, taken with the startlingly high number of African Americans classified as "insane" in the 1840 federal census, produced a double bind for blacks. By that line of reasoning, if a poor environment produced insanity and crime, and if the majority of African Americans lived in poor environments, then the majority of African Americans were likely to be insane or criminal. The only solutions were self-help or segregation in asylums and prisons. Ultimately, all free blacks found themselves under surveillance and suspicion, in danger of incarceration and stripped of intellect. In other words, in white eyes, African Americans were not only not entitled to, but incapable of, citizenship, and therefore a threat to the nation.
Authors of slave narratives negotiated, appropriated, and rearranged elements of these representations of African American capacity. Transferring the public platform from the scaffold to the lectern and turning confessions to testimony, they transformed the image of a black man in public from a criminal on trial to a witness in the public prosecution of the nation (as DeLombard outlined in her previous work). They [End Page 586] established their own entitlement to citizenship in contrast to their white masters, who committed atrocities under protection of the law.
DeLombard takes that contrast further by examining stories about American slavers who willingly denied citizenship and ignored responsibility in order to escape prosecution for their violations of law and humanity. Such narratives condemned the United States as a whole for protecting criminal behavior committed by white citizens while excluding respectable blacks from citizenship. Still, these authors found themselves trapped by the terms of debate, arguing for their own innocence even when they themselves were not on trial.
This book deserves to be regarded as important. Building upon the extensive research of Slavery on Trial, with a fifty-page bibliography and sixty-six pages of discursive endnotes, DeLombard's argument is nothing if not well documented. She is particularly skillful at reminding her readers of concurrent events; concurrence lies at the heart...