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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
  • Kelly Kennington (bio)
Becoming Free, Becoming Black: Race, Freedom, and Law in Cuba, Virginia, and Louisiana. By Alejandro de la Fuente and Ariela J. Gross. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. 281. Cloth, $24.95.)

Alejandro de la Fuente and Ariela Gross’s new book weaves together three distinct approaches to historical scholarship to produce a book that is concise, readable, and a welcome addition to the literature on slavery and freedom in the Americas. The book is first and foremost a comparative history focused on three different European colonies: Cuba, Louisiana, and Virginia. Starting with the earliest arrivals of Europeans and Africans in the Americas, the book examines each colony’s approach to creating legal regimes of slavery and race. It traces this process through emancipation in the nineteenth century to argue for the centrality of the law of freedom to the creation of racial ideology. This massive scope also speaks to the book’s synthetic approach. The authors do not merely cull the existing secondary literature, as is often the case with sweeping syntheses. Instead, they also approach the topic by embracing the kind of deep archival research and close attention to local conditions that has characterized each author’s previous scholarship. The authors “define ‘law’ broadly” (9), investigating an array of sources, including imperial codes, state statutes, and local court cases, to reveal a variety of actors’ efforts to shape law and legal doctrine. It is the pairing of both authors’ previous expertise on the subject, together with an abundance of additional archival digging, that makes this book such an impressive achievement.

The book builds its central argument, that the legal regulation of race originated primarily in each regime’s treatment of laws relating to freedom, [End Page 280] by using five chronological chapters that each span the three locations. The authors examine laws that policed access to freedom, as well as laws regulating the existing free population of African descent, concluding that the greatest variation between the three societies’ racial regimes was a direct result of the size and influence of their free Black populations. The three societies were closest in the size of their populations and their approaches to free people of color in the late eighteenth century. After the age of revolutions, Louisiana and Virginia managed to curtail access to freedom for people of African descent, while Cuba was unable to stop the long-established practices of manumission and self-purchase. Using the law of freedom as a lens, one central theme of the book is how people of African descent carved out ways to make claims on their governments that helped establish and protect their rights as citizens of the polity. Throughout the book, the authors center the lives and experiences of enslaved and free Black individuals, which helps to make the work a great read that will appeal to a broad audience of students and scholars.

Becoming Free, Becoming Black speaks to several trends in the historiography, most notably comparative work on the Americas and studies focused on the relationship between slavery and freedom. The literature in these areas is so voluminous that the authors cowrote an excellent historiographical essay on the subject, entitled “Comparative Studies of Law, Slavery, and Race in the Americas,” in the Annual Review of Law and Social Science (2010). Starting with Frank Tannenbaum’s Slave and Citizen, (1946), works by scholars such as Alan Watson, Robert J. Cottrol, and Sue Peabody and Keila Grinberg have looked into the legal systems of slavery in differing imperial regimes. De la Fuente and Gross build on these works to place three specific examples of different European colonies’ approaches to the law of slavery alongside one another. The authors also contribute to scholarship specifically on the relationship between slavery and freedom, such as Kimberly M. Welch’s Black Litigants in the Antebellum American South (2018), Ted Maris-Wolf ’s Family Bonds: Free Blacks and Re-enslavement Law in Antebellum Virginia (2015), and Judith Kelleher Schafer’s Becoming Free, Remaining Free: Manumission and Enslavement in New Orleans, 1846...


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pp. 280-282
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