Seizing Freedom: Slave Emancipation and Liberty for All by David Roediger (review)
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Reviewed by
David Roediger. Seizing Freedom: Slave Emancipation and Liberty for All. New York: Verso, 2014. 230 pp. $26.95.

David Roediger is engaged in a reclamation project. He wants us to remember the central role that slaves played in forcing emancipation through their feet, by escaping, by fighting, by seeking the freedom that the white leaders we so often celebrate were reluctant to bestow upon them. Seizing Freedom: Slave Emancipation and Liberty for All is, to be sure, an act of remembering rather than of discovery. Roediger traces the long history of our understanding of the central role slaves [End Page 383] played in their own emancipation, from the groundbreaking work of Du Bois onward, but he also argues that that central role has been marginalized; it has never been eliminated from accounts, but instead has consistently been pushed to the fringes as an a priori assumption that can be given a reverent nod before turning to more compelling political drama. In this project he is not alone, as his book appeared at roughly the same time as I Freed Myself: African-American Self-Emancipation in the Civil War Era (Cambridge UP, 2014) by Civil War scholar David Williams, which also seeks to give the black role in emancipation its rightful pride of place.

Seizing Freedom, however, broadens the debate beyond the traditional historical narrative and beyond the story of slaves. By emphasizing the centrality of slave self-emancipation, Roediger is able to harness the ripples created by the tidal wave of the war. The death of slavery was an epic demographic upheaval, the conditions for which were created what the author describes as a synesthetic, sped-up “revolutionary time,” wherein the moment’s hyperbolic rhetoric and rapid political and cultural changes altered the way people experienced their world. Time slowed down, and when it did, the ideological agreements that gave the appearance of organization broke down into factions that had their own stakes in the game. Thus, as Roediger explains, movements developed in response to emancipation that also championed causes as diverse as Indian rights and Irish nationalism.

More important, the Civil War and the end of slavery it engendered recreated the women’s suffrage and labor rights movements. For women, the intersection of increased public roles in the wake of the war and the already established place of women in the abolition movement, feeding as it did from the multipronged push for antebellum reform, generated a renewed confidence among activists and helped the movement coalesce around a woman’s right to vote. At the same time, women were able to broaden the discussion of what exactly “rights” entailed by inaugurating the first sustained national discussion of the causes and consequences of domestic violence.

A similar phenomenon happened with the labor movement as the overriding emphasis on free labor and the constant comparisons, positive and negative, made on both sides to the metastasizing wage labor force in the North led workers to seek their own version of emancipation, which ultimately coalesced around the cause of an eight-hour workday. That, too, was given its push by what Roediger calls “the broad politics of Jubilee” (21).

Roediger reads that politics in new ways and pushes it in new directions that, for example, I Freed Myself does not go. The revolutionary time of emancipation also problematized whiteness. Proceeding from the pioneering work of Douglas Baynton and other scholars of disability, Roediger reads racial and gender othering as a phenomenon of disability, wherein white male norms of fitness constituted a biological template for others who sought inclusion. Female hysteria or slave unintelligence became functions of disability, which made them much more difficult to overcome than simple bias in favor of whiteness or maleness. In the wake of the Civil War, however, an ethos of disability resulting from the war’s injuries fundamentally changed that narrative and forced both the dominant culture and the politics that served it to cater to the white male disabled. Thus, disability, as Roediger explains, “was at once celebrated for its connection to heroism and hidden for its connection to weakness” (78). Gender and race played new roles in this new conception of disability, as...


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