- Beyond Freedom: Disrupting the History of Emancipation ed. by David W. Blight and Jim Downs
Since the early seventeenth century, when the institution came to what would eventually become the United States's shore, slavery remained an instrumental part of the American fabric. Although a relatively regional institution, its influence was pervasive and overt. It was protected in the country's charter; its society produced arguably the most powerful and effective politicians in early nineteenth century who enacted policies that furthered and insulated it; and on the backs of forced labor, it fueled the country's industrialization. It became indistinguishable from Southern society and culture, and awakened a reforming spirit in the North that, in many ways, continues to the present. Having bifurcated the country in two, it also nearly led to its destruction. Historians, to be sure, have been interested in America's "original sin," from its beginning and ultimately institutionalization.
However, perhaps overshadowed by the military events and subsequent "reunion" that followed, historians often passively glanced at emancipation and the continuous struggles that arose. Historians also separate slavery from emancipation, marking the two experiences of the black experience as distinct. Thus, this bifurcation completely dismisses what the four million liberated souls experience during slavery and how that guides them through Reconstruction and beyond. Emancipation and freedom are placed within military and political [End Page 406] events. As a result, the primary focus remains the white South's response or the North's failure to fulfill freedom's promise. Freepeople, perhaps inadvertently or not, are bit players in their own story. Lacking agency, the focus of Reconstruction becomes little more than passive observers or buffeted leaves moved by the winds of change instead of effecting that change.
In Beyond Freedom: Disrupting the History of Emancipation, David W. Blight and Jim Downs looked to remedy this oversight and place history in the nineteenth century as a continuous event and not arbitrary set points with distinct beginnings and endings. In eleven essays by leading scholars in the field, this study ties the complex (and still incomplete) story of the enslaved to the emancipated. Rather than declare freedom's existence with the demise of slavery in 1865, this work posits some very important questions. When exactly did freedom come? What were its limitations? What did it mean to be free? And, a question that too often does not find its way into post-slavery studies—What effect did freepeople's experience with slavery have on their understandings of freedom and liberty? In the attempts to redirect examination, these essays look to upend much previous understandings and interpretations of slavery, emancipation, Reconstruction, and freedom and liberty in the United States.
The essays are categorized in three sections: the transition from slavery to freedom, the politics of freedom, and various meanings of freedom. Each essay focuses on a different aspect of the section headings. The first essay by Richard Newman examines the neglected "contested terrain of early emancipation that engendered Civil War debates over black liberty in the first place" (p. 12). As he notes, emancipation was not simply the culmination of the war years. It was a debate and process that had roots years before Union victory drove a stake in the peculiar institution. Susan O'Donovan laments the profession's continued dismissal ("pernicious effect") of "slaves and their capacity as agents of change" and continued capacity to define freedom afterwards (p. 28). By marginalizing the freedpeople's understanding of freedom and political discourse and forces turbulent [End Page 407] in the mid-nineteenth century, she warns missing and consequently misunderstanding "the full range of forces" shaping the nation (p. 29). These people, although uneducated and articulate in the academic sense, were cognizant of the wider world, having traveled extensively, meeting various peoples, cultures, and witnessing historical events and ideas. The last essay in the section by Chandra Manning examines the changed dynamic between the individual and state with emancipation. She notes liberation...