Beyond Freedom: Disrupting the History of Emancipation – BLIGHT; DOWNS (TH-JM)

BLIGHT, David W.; DOWNS, Jim. eds. Beyond Freedom: Disrupting the History of Emancipation. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 2017. 190p. Resenha de: GIFFORD, Ron. Teaching History – A Journal of Methods, v.45, n.2, p.57-60, 2020.

Students of Emancipation need no better reason to pick up Beyond Freedom than it emerged from a 2011 conference held at the Gilder-Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, of which David Blight is now the director, and has chapters by a veritable who’s who in Emancipation Studies. It is also a thoughtful reminder that historians are continually grappling with what freedom was in the nineteenth century, who defined it, and whether it was enough to make a difference in African Americans’ lives.

The title might seem misleading to many readers, as the book is entirely about emancipation; however, the subtitle clarifies that historians are trying to disrupt the “freedom paradigm,” which focused on freedom in zero sum fashion, by emphasizing the painful process of emancipation, and in the process abandoning the traditional periodization and adopting different lenses to analyze the citizen’s relationship to the state. In sum, the authors remind us, emancipation was messy, it was never preordained to end in perfect freedom, and Black voices, freed and enslaved, still offer the best avenue to revise our understanding of emancipation, its promises, and its limits.

The collection is organized in three parts, though one could argue there should only be two: those pieces written in a traditional academic format and those written as ruminations on how historians have failed to adequately interrogate the sources, at best, or have ignored or misused the terror and suffering Black people faced in the nineteenth century. Parts one and two, “From Slavery to Freedom” and “The Politics of Freedom,” take the more traditional approach and emphasize a process of emancipation that was not restricted to the period following the Civil War and was anything but progressive. According to Richard Newman, Black emancipation and responses to it during Reconstruction took place in the wake of earlier emancipations, in and beyond the United States. As a result, Black and White Americans alike were familiar with the “grammar” of emancipation and understood this was not a story with a preordained conclusion. As a result, we need to apply different lenses that challenge the when, where, and how emancipation happened. More importantly, we need to recognize Black people—enslaved and free, male or female, adult or child—as “fully realized political people” (27). If we do so, a more complex and less celebratory portrait of emancipation emerges. Part three, “Meditations on the Meaning of Freedom,” deviates from the traditional format, possibly to avoid the lack of “human touch” that may characterize for laymen the problems with academia, but is a welcome glimpse into historians reflecting upon their craft and taking seriously Susan O’Donovan’s claim, “if [B]lack lives matter today, then so should the whole of the [B]lack past”(29). As a result, readers will find greater attention paid to the circumstances and actions of African Americans, specifically women and children, and the political nature of their torture, suffering, and grief.

In general, Beyond Freedom, will be a valuable tool for faculty and graduate students interested in a refresher concerning the state of the conversation concerning emancipation. The books the contributors have produced in the last decade constitute an essential reading list for scholars of the period. At the undergraduate level, this volume would be a good edition to a seminar, in which students fashion independent theses within the context of a larger conversation, employ primary sources in some fashion, and question the epistemological problems associated with a vague concept like freedom. Jim Downs’s focus on “the Ontology of the Freedmen’s Bureau Records” is an apt reminder that sometimes the “records [and historians] assign a particular narrative logic to a process that lacks order and efficiency,” and, as a result, “What freedom meant to freed people has only been partially told” (175). Even in that context, however, the volume will require a skilled teacher, already familiar with the existing historiography, to make sense of it for students. If there is any criticism, it might be the omission of any focus on emancipation beyond the United States, except in the preface by Foner.

As historians come to grips with the suffering, abuse, and terror Blacks faced, emancipation, as Thavolia Glymph notes, has the potential to “break your heart” (132), but this collection may also give students the hope that by abandoning the traditional periodization or models we so often rely upon and pa

Ron Gifford – Illinois State University.

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