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Prophets Of Protest: Reconsidering The History Of American Abolitionism

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The campaign to abolish slavery in the United States was the most powerful and effective social movement of the nineteenth century and has served as a recurring source of inspiration for every subsequent struggle against injustice. But the abolitionist story has traditionally focused on the evangelical impulses of white, male, middle-class reformers, obscuring the contribu The campaign to abolish slavery in the United States was the most powerful and effective social movement of the nineteenth century and has served as a recurring source of inspiration for every subsequent struggle against injustice. But the abolitionist story has traditionally focused on the evangelical impulses of white, male, middle-class reformers, obscuring the contributions of many African Americans, women, and others. Prophets of Protest, the first collection of writings on abolitionism in more than a generation, draws on an immense new body of research in African American studies, literature, art history, film, law, women’s studies, and other disciplines. The book incorporates new thinking on such topics as the role of early black newspapers, antislavery poetry, and abolitionists in film and provides new perspectives on familiar figures such as Sojourner Truth, Louisa May Alcott, Frederick Douglass, and John Brown. With contributions from the leading scholars in the field, Prophets of Protest is a long overdue update of one of the central reform movements in America’s history.


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The campaign to abolish slavery in the United States was the most powerful and effective social movement of the nineteenth century and has served as a recurring source of inspiration for every subsequent struggle against injustice. But the abolitionist story has traditionally focused on the evangelical impulses of white, male, middle-class reformers, obscuring the contribu The campaign to abolish slavery in the United States was the most powerful and effective social movement of the nineteenth century and has served as a recurring source of inspiration for every subsequent struggle against injustice. But the abolitionist story has traditionally focused on the evangelical impulses of white, male, middle-class reformers, obscuring the contributions of many African Americans, women, and others. Prophets of Protest, the first collection of writings on abolitionism in more than a generation, draws on an immense new body of research in African American studies, literature, art history, film, law, women’s studies, and other disciplines. The book incorporates new thinking on such topics as the role of early black newspapers, antislavery poetry, and abolitionists in film and provides new perspectives on familiar figures such as Sojourner Truth, Louisa May Alcott, Frederick Douglass, and John Brown. With contributions from the leading scholars in the field, Prophets of Protest is a long overdue update of one of the central reform movements in America’s history.

34 review for Prophets Of Protest: Reconsidering The History Of American Abolitionism

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan

    The key claim uniting and underpinning this collection of essays is that the abolition movement was more racially and culturally diverse than our current syntheses recognize. The editors portray themselves as the historiographic heirs of Martin Duberman (The Antislavery Vanguard, 1965) and Lewis Perry and Michael Fellman (Antislavery Reconsidered, 1979), who rehabilitated abolitionism after generations of hostility (xiv-xvi). Historians now recognize the importance and nobility of the abolitioni The key claim uniting and underpinning this collection of essays is that the abolition movement was more racially and culturally diverse than our current syntheses recognize. The editors portray themselves as the historiographic heirs of Martin Duberman (The Antislavery Vanguard, 1965) and Lewis Perry and Michael Fellman (Antislavery Reconsidered, 1979), who rehabilitated abolitionism after generations of hostility (xiv-xvi). Historians now recognize the importance and nobility of the abolitionist cause, McCarthy and Stauffer tell us, but they have yet to recognize its true breadth and resilience. The editors present the essays in this collection (2006) as the leading edge of scholarship on that question; they are evidence of the abolitionists' racial diversity and of their continuous presence in American life between the Revolution and the antebellum period. In the first section of the book, entitled "Revisions," two scholars argue that the dominant historical narrative of abolitionism contains crucial gaps. First, Robert P. Forbes writes that the period between 1808 and 1831 "has been drastically understudied and overlooked" (13). This, he says, is largely because the tone of the period's abolitionism does not fit neatly into a later progressive or "Modernist Revisionist" script. That is, the period's predominance of evangelical Christian radicalism is inconvenient for believers in either inexorable historical progress or secular materialism. Forbes argues that modern scholars must try to set aside their own secular assumptions if they wish to understand the importance and radicalism of that early phase (3-22). Manisha Sinha then contributes an article attacking "the dominant picture of abolitionists," a picture of "bourgeois reformers burdened by racial paternalism and economic conservatism" (23). In fact, Sinha writes, recent scholarship has shown that women and African Americans were crucial to the overall movement. She cites, for example, the work of Wilson Moses and Tunde Adeleke on black nationalism; Shane White, Gary Nash, Christopher Phillips, and others on black grassroots social activism; and David Blight, Robert S. Levine, Nell Painter, Peter Hinks, and others on the lives of specific black intellectuals. It is now time, Sinha writes, for a new synthesis of abolition history that will integrate the insights of these scholars (23-38). The second section of the book, "Origins," focuses on the continuity of abolitionism between the Revolution and the Civil War. This is the longest and most varied part of the book. Some authors describe particular spheres of resistance. An article by T. K. Hunter, for example, explores the Somerset (England, 1772) and Commonwealth v. Aves (Massachusetts, 1836) cases, which illustrate an easily overlooked fact: in the decades during which slavery thrived, geography was a key element in the operation of the law. Slaves discovered that a difference in location could make the difference between liberty and bondage, even within a single basic political system (41-58). An article by Richard S. Newman then argues that by the 1790s, a generation of free "black founders" (such as Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, James Forten, Lemuel Haynes, and John Marrant) had already fixed the foundations of black abolitionism by establishing autonomous black institutions (churches, mutual aid societies, and so forth) and by inaugurating a tradition of print protest (59-79). Timothy Patrick McCarthy then elaborates on the continuing importance of black print culture. According to his article, black journalism became "the driving force behind the transformation of American abolitionism" after the 1820s (115). Free northern blacks like Samuel Cornish (coeditor of Freedom's Journal, established in 1827) and David Walker began to urge the immediate abolition of slavery before William Lloyd Garrison took his public stand (114-44). Meanwhile, two other articles in this section focus on particular black intellectuals. Julie Winch examines the thought of James Forten. She argues that he was fundamentally, throughout his life, a revolutionary; from his service in the American Revolution to his firm denunciation of African colonization, Forten stood for a radically egalitarian vision of American society. He did so, however, partly out of fear that America might see a French-style terror if fundamental change in race relations did not occur peacefully (80-9). Forten's case contrasts nicely with that of John Brown Russwurm, detailed in an article by Sandra Sandiford Young. Unlike Forten, Russwurm was raised in privilege and came late to the abolitionist cause. He became a leader of the movement as coeditor of Freedom's Journal, which spoke forcefully against the American Colonization Society. Gradually, however, he grew critical of northern blacks' embarrassing public displays, taking a "paternal" tone, and in 1829 he shocked other black leaders by announcing his decision to emigrate to Africa (90-113). According to Young, the apostasy of Russwurm actually lent unity to the rest of the movement; he provided other spokespersons with a "convenient and visible foe whom they were unafraid to fight," allowing them to consolidate their public authority and delineate the boundaries of acceptable black responses to oppression (113). "Revolutions," the third section of the book, centers on the violent climax of antebellum abolitionism: John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry. First, Karl Gridley examines John Brown's career in Kansas, arguing that he was part of a large popular antislavery movement there, which was fueled by the immigration of militant New England ideologues. Gridley suggests, therefore, that Brown was far from unusual in the intensity of his abolitionist fury and should no longer be treated as a rabid lone killer (147-64). This is also the upshot of an article by Hannah Geffert and Jean Libby, who point to evidence that many blacks in the region of Harpers Ferry were willing participants in Brown's attack. In Geffert and Libby's eyes, Brown was the representative of a radical interracial abolition movement that anticipated and ultimately accepted the violence of the Civil War as necessary to end slavery's evils (165-79). The final section of the book, "Representations," examines the embededness of abolitionism in American culture -- both before the Civil War and in subsequent years. An article by Patrick Rael describes how free black activists entered the antebellum public sphere to take on the scientific racism of Louis Aggasiz, Samuel Morton, and others. Black leaders could not ignore racial science, he contends, and by attacking it directly and indirectly, they shaped American public opinion and prepared the way for the intensifying slavery debates of 1848-60 (183-99). Julie Roy Jeffrey describes antebellum commemorations of 1 August, the abolition of slavery in the West Indies, which allowed free blacks to create their own public voice and political culture in defiance of white society (200-19). Dickson D. Bruce Jr. explores abolitionists' use of printed poetry; he argues that poetry made abolitionism more visible and genteel, promoted empathy with slaves, and communicated a vision of cooperative and sympathetic rather than competitive society (220-34). Augusta Rohrbach claims that Sojourner Truth and Louisa May Alcott were acutely attentive to the demands of the literary market, each creating a product -- in Truth's case especially, making a product of herself -- that would be attractive and compelling to American audiences (235-55). John Stauffer, similarly, describes how black activists deliberately used printed pictures of themselves and of suffering slaves to inspire sympathy in their audience (256-67). Finally, Casey King looks at depictions of abolitionism in American cinema since 1915's The Birth of a Nation. He argues that throughout the twentieth century, Hollywood's treatment of abolitionism has remained overwhelmingly negative (268-93). In keeping with its grand theme, therefore, Prophets of Protest is a diverse collection of essays. Clearly, however, it tends to support the editors' contention that stories of black abolitionists are now accessible to historical synthesizers and can greatly enrich their work. Beyond diversity itself, if there is a single clear implication of this collection, it is the fact that black contributions can make abolitionism appear especially radical, even apocalyptic. Paradoxically, perhaps, this is the very tendency that made abolitionism so controversial in earlier generations, inspiring the revisionist collections that inspired this book.

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