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  • Becoming Free, Becoming Black: Race, Freedom, and Law in Cuba, Virginia, and Louisiana by Alejandro de la Fuente and Ariela J. Gross
  • Robert Colby
Becoming Free, Becoming Black: Race, Freedom, and Law in Cuba, Virginia, and Louisiana. By Alejandro de la Fuente and Ariela J. Gross. Studies in Legal History. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. xiv, 281. $24.95, ISBN 978-1-108-48064-2.)

Scholars seeking to understand the ties between slavery and race in the New World have long found critical evidence in the array of laws that colonies and states passed linking African descent and servility. Increasingly, however, legal historians have demonstrated that these laws' impact was not predetermined. Instead, local officials and ordinary people established the laws' functional meanings by adhering to or ignoring top-down mandates and by permitting extralegal traditions and interpersonal relationships to shape the laws' application. Enslaved and free people of color played a critical role in this process. Though everywhere excluded from many of the rights guaranteed to citizens, enslaved and free people of color nevertheless took advantage of legal openings to liberate themselves, structure their families, and impose distance between themselves and bondage. In this slim volume, Alejandro de la Fuente and Ariela J. Gross probe how negotiations between enslavers, African-descended peoples, and the law shaped race, freedom, and belonging in Cuba, Virginia, and Louisiana. Through a close examination of African Americans' and Afro-Cubans' encounters with racialized legal structures, de la Fuente and Gross demonstrate how these men and women used opportunities embedded within each system to fend off slaveholders' consistent efforts to render servitude and Blackness indistinguishable.

The laws governing Cuba, Louisiana, and Virginia had dramatic (and sometimes unexpected) effects on Africans' and African Americans' place in these three societies. In Cuba, preexisting Iberian practice marked Africans as slaves from the outset. But this system, originally constructed on nonracial premises, also included mechanisms (such as coartación, a system of self-paid manumission) through which Afro-Cubans could mitigate their bondage or even free themselves. Across generations, escapes made through these legal hatches produced a sizable—and increasingly essential—class of free people of color. Their numbers, increasingly formalized abilities to claim rights, and critical place in the Spanish imperial project shielded them from enslavers' efforts to equate Blackness and bondage despite a surging early-nineteenthcentury plantation economy.

Colonial Louisianans borrowed heavily from Caribbean slave codes and carefully policed Africans' efforts to win freedom. Four decades of Spanish rule in Louisiana, however, opened avenues to liberation similar to Cuba's. These opportunities, combined with the mass arrival of refugees from Saint Domingue, created a sizable free Black community in the colony-turned-state. The Americans [End Page 325] who took over after the Louisiana Purchase significantly tightened African Americans' chances for freedom, but enslaved and free people of color nevertheless drew on these legacies to protect themselves amid the onset of the Cotton Kingdom. An initially porous Virginia code, meanwhile, briefly accommodated Black freedom alongside enslavement. From the late seventeenth century onward, however (save for a brief moment after the American Revolution), Virginia's lawmakers fought to eliminate the contradiction that free people of color represented for a slave society and to remove them as a threat to the slave regime. Black men and women regularly won reprieves in local courts, but in Virginia, as in Louisiana, the law's overarching aim was to foreclose their claims to belonging and to preserve a society built on bondage.

Blending careful archival work with seamless distillations of the secondary literature, de la Fuente and Gross effectively depict the structural forces looming over people of African descent and the legal havens they constructed in the shadows. Vivid anecdotes give a deeply human complexion to what could easily have been an antiseptic description of evolving codes of laws. This compact yet comprehensive study, moreover, provides a welcome reminder that critical mechanisms within slave societies appear with greater clarity when presented in contrasts. De la Fuente and Gross have provided a useful handbook for historians of all three regions who seek to understand the law's effect on regimes of racial exploitation—and the worlds that people of...


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pp. 325-326
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