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  • Beyond Freedom: Disrupting the History of Emancipation ed. by David W. Blight and Jim Downs
  • Brian Kelly (bio)
Beyond Freedom: Disrupting the History of Emancipation. Edited by David W. Blight and Jim Downs. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017. Pp. 208. Cloth $79.95; paper, $24.95.)

The problem at the core of this collection—the contested and multiple meanings of freedom after the American Civil War—enters the [End Page 168] historiography of emancipation from two distinct vantage points. First, the differing perspectives of the main protagonists—planters, freedpeople, deliverers—figure prominently in a complicated historical narrative. They brought varying, often irreconcilable understandings of freedom to bear in the protracted confrontation opened up by emancipation. W. E. B. DuBois noted more than eighty years ago in Black Reconstruction in America that these "contending and antagonistic groups spoke different and unknown tongues," shouting past one another while attempting to advance their particular visions.

There is a second path by which differing conceptions of freedom enter the literature: interpretive differences among historians aiming to reconstruct the past have shaped understanding no less than the documentary record itself. Malicious assumptions about black inferiority permeated scholarship associated with the Dunning school well into the twentieth century. Subjected to withering assault by DuBois in 1935, it was ultimately dislodged after a revisionist surge driven by the postwar black freedom struggle. This new framework found full expression in the publication of Eric Foner's Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 in 1988.

Foner acknowledges his debt to DuBois, and like others attempting to bring the archive to bear on the interpretive framework animating Black Reconstruction in America, his work reflects not merely the rejection of Dunning's crude racism but a positive embrace of DuBois's attention to political economy. Much of the impressive scholarship generated in the immediate post–civil rights era attributes substantial responsibility for the gap between freedpeople's expansive vision and Redemption's dismal reality to the outworkings of Republican free labor ideology. Leading scholars focused closely on new challenges facing the "emancipated worker," locating freedom's shortcomings not only in the malevolence of the usual suspects—the Klan, embittered ex-Confederates, former masters—but in the cramped variant of freedom on offer from the slaves' ostensible liberators.

This collection, drawing together eleven essays by leading historians of emancipation, aims to move beyond the "freedom paradigm"—a framework that, the editors suggest, meets with growing ambivalence (3). The volume includes thoughtful, impressive stand-alone essays that explore the dynamics shaping events between the antebellum period and the late nineteenth century. Yet read end to end, it is the book's gaps and omissions that are striking. Though the editors deny any intent "to advance an argument or to upset a particular way of thinking" (x), together with the absence of any but a fleeting mention of conflict over land or labor, the [End Page 169] volume's neglect of political economy marks a clear departure from the historiographical legacy outlined above.

Beyond Freedom opens with four essays exploring emancipation's prehistory and concludes with a set of extended, sometimes intimate reflections on sources and methodology. In between are three essays grouped under "The Politics of Freedom," just one of which focuses on the poste-mancipation South. James Oakes's illumination of the Republicans' bedrock commitment to antislavery takes the reader into some familiar terrain, but neither of the others is especially concerned with politics, even in its broadest sense. The editors note at the outset that contributions are not intended as case studies grounded in archival research, though Justin Behrend's study of violence in Reconstruction Mississippi and Brenda E. Stevenson's essay on the ritualization of slave marriages come close.

While Beyond Freedom's temporal and thematic breadth offers something for everyone, the same qualities render it difficult to identify common threads. Richard Newman begins the first section, "From Slavery to Freedom," with an essay on antiabolitionists' penchant for conjuring the alleged failures of Atlantic emancipation to deflect attacks on southern slavery. Susan O'Donovan challenges the depiction of slaves as inert and apolitical, suggesting instead that the roads and waterways traversing the Cotton South doubled as...


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pp. 168-171
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