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Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North

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Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Martin Delany--these figures stand out in the annals of black protest for their vital antislavery efforts. But what of the rest of their generation, the thousands of other free blacks in the North? Patrick Rael explores the tradition of protest and sense of racial identity forged by both famous and lesser-known black leaders in antebell Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Martin Delany--these figures stand out in the annals of black protest for their vital antislavery efforts. But what of the rest of their generation, the thousands of other free blacks in the North? Patrick Rael explores the tradition of protest and sense of racial identity forged by both famous and lesser-known black leaders in antebellum America and illuminates the ideas that united these activists across a wide array of divisions. In so doing, he reveals the roots of the arguments that still resound in the struggle for justice today. Mining sources that include newspapers and pamphlets of the black national press, speeches and sermons, slave narratives and personal memoirs, Rael recovers the voices of an extraordinary range of black leaders in the first half of the nineteenth century. He traces how these activists constructed a black American identity through their participation in the discourse of the public sphere and how this identity in turn informed their critiques of a nation predicated on freedom but devoted to white supremacy. His analysis explains how their place in the industrializing, urbanizing antebellum North offered black leaders a unique opportunity to smooth over class and other tensions among themselves and successfully galvanize the race against slavery.


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Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Martin Delany--these figures stand out in the annals of black protest for their vital antislavery efforts. But what of the rest of their generation, the thousands of other free blacks in the North? Patrick Rael explores the tradition of protest and sense of racial identity forged by both famous and lesser-known black leaders in antebell Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Martin Delany--these figures stand out in the annals of black protest for their vital antislavery efforts. But what of the rest of their generation, the thousands of other free blacks in the North? Patrick Rael explores the tradition of protest and sense of racial identity forged by both famous and lesser-known black leaders in antebellum America and illuminates the ideas that united these activists across a wide array of divisions. In so doing, he reveals the roots of the arguments that still resound in the struggle for justice today. Mining sources that include newspapers and pamphlets of the black national press, speeches and sermons, slave narratives and personal memoirs, Rael recovers the voices of an extraordinary range of black leaders in the first half of the nineteenth century. He traces how these activists constructed a black American identity through their participation in the discourse of the public sphere and how this identity in turn informed their critiques of a nation predicated on freedom but devoted to white supremacy. His analysis explains how their place in the industrializing, urbanizing antebellum North offered black leaders a unique opportunity to smooth over class and other tensions among themselves and successfully galvanize the race against slavery.

31 review for Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan

    Unwieldy in its prose, but otherwise well-crafted, providing great insight into American identities during the early nineteenth century. Patrick Rael argues that elite black leaders in the North constructed a distinctive black identity in the years before the Civil War. They built this identity on a foundation of American identity and middle-class values, claiming a place for black Americans in the bourgeois public sphere. In a sense, therefore, northern black elites endorsed concepts that were o Unwieldy in its prose, but otherwise well-crafted, providing great insight into American identities during the early nineteenth century. Patrick Rael argues that elite black leaders in the North constructed a distinctive black identity in the years before the Civil War. They built this identity on a foundation of American identity and middle-class values, claiming a place for black Americans in the bourgeois public sphere. In a sense, therefore, northern black elites endorsed concepts that were often used to justify oppression -- "the natural primacy of men over women, the virtue of bourgeois culture, and the sanctity of Western 'civilization'" (10). However, they also countered the increasingly Anglo-Saxon nationalism of white America with a parallel black nationalism, accusing whites of wholesale degradation of blacks and denial of fundamental American liberties. They imagined themselves as an autonomous American people with a providential destiny. Rael begins the book by drawing on property records to demonstrate that his "elite" northern blacks lived in conditions that allowed them to identify easily with their less obtrusive brethren. Blacks in the emancipated North tended to share a "minimally opulent freedom," unlike blacks in the South, who were separated by dramatic social disparities (24). Rael argues that this relative equality among leaders and ordinary black northern Americans, together with the obvious fact that northern whites after abolition identified all blacks with each other, lent unity to the emerging black public and its culture of protest (12-53). Among the arenas in which this new culture manifested itself were antislavery celebrations. As slavery ended in Northern states, Rael writes, whites became wary of traditional black cultural events like Negro Election Day and Negro Training Day. Such events seemed disorderly and dangerous; northern cities and states tried to suppress them. What blacks replaced them with, however, were public celebrations of freedom (especially commemorations of 1 August, when the British abolished slavery in the West Indies in 1834), organized not by white masters but by black community leaders. In developing this new tradition, Rael suggests, northern blacks were reinventing themselves and creating a unified black community before the eyes of both the white and the black public (54-81). To show that black leaders were conscious of this process of communal self-fashioning, and that the process was deliberate, Rael recounts a discussion held in the black press in the first decades of the nineteenth century. The discussion concerned nomenclature; black journalists abandoned the term African and endorsed the term Colored American as an acceptable label for members of their race. As Rael tells this story, African, which had been the favored term until the beginning of the nineteenth century, took on a sinister new aspect after 1816 thanks to the American Colonization Society. Black leaders anxious to avoid providing support to the African colonization movement thus looked for a replacement. The word negro was problematic due to its association with the word nigger. The adjective upon which favor came to rest in the 1830s was colored (in various forms). Rael explains that this term carried a connotation of respectability. It originated in the Caribbean as gens de couleur, a label for free and skilled mulattoes. In using this term as a label for all blacks in the United States, Rael argues, northern leaders were staking a claim to residence in the Americas as well as to gentility. At the same time, they were asserting racial unity, both inside and outside the United States (82-117). By settling on a term associated with light-skinned merchants and artisans, however, black leaders were implicitly endorsing some of the key social values of white America. There was a tension in their thought, Rael concludes; they were defiant but insecure. Thus their racial activism often took the form of campaigns for "self-improvement." They believed, Rael writes, "that the attainment of personal moral and mental 'elevation' would bring about the success of the individual" (119). They hoped to change white attitudes by demonstrating that free blacks, given the chance, could meet the expectations of middle-class America. (Rael goes as far as to claim that black elites "cofabricated" the bourgeois values of the antebellum era by placing so much stress on respectability [124:]). Admitting that free blacks still lived in a condition of inequality, even at times accepting whites' belief that blacks were mentally inferior, they argued that centuries of slavery and caste exclusion had degraded blacks. Upon white Americans they laid the blame for the inferiority that whites imagined; to their fellow black Americans they directed a solemn charge, urging them to break free from their oppression through "self-regulation" and economic independence (118-208). Rael defends these efforts as reasonable attempts to make a place for free blacks in a culture dominated by people who wished to exclude and exploit them. Faced with the unshakable social convictions of white America, black elites did what they could to lay claim to the rights of equal citizens. Ultimately, this led them to nationalism. As nineteenth-century white Americans absorbed and adapted the ethnic nationalism of Europe, coming to see American society as inherently white, Rael writes, elite black Americans could only defend their right to citizenship by imagining themselves as members of a black nation with a collective right to self-determination. In other words, they accepted the principle of nationalism in order to fashion a counter-nation to represent the interests of ordinary black Americans. In doing this, however, they never abandoned what they saw as the ideals of America's founding. In a sense, they portrayed themselves as the truer American nation, upholding ideals that the white nation had betrayed (209-78).

  2. 4 out of 5

    Courtney Homer

    A fascinating look at the beginnings of black identity and protest in the antebellum north. Rael takes a top-down approach to the historiography and certainly makes a case for the development of specific rhetoric and discourse in black elite circles. The book would be stronger if he spent a little time exploring the impact of that rhetoric. But all in all, a very worthwhile read about how burgeoning prejudice in the antebellum north pushed the black elite to develop a cause and fight to be parti A fascinating look at the beginnings of black identity and protest in the antebellum north. Rael takes a top-down approach to the historiography and certainly makes a case for the development of specific rhetoric and discourse in black elite circles. The book would be stronger if he spent a little time exploring the impact of that rhetoric. But all in all, a very worthwhile read about how burgeoning prejudice in the antebellum north pushed the black elite to develop a cause and fight to be participants and equals under the promised American values of equality and freedom.

  3. 4 out of 5

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  13. 5 out of 5

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