Thursday, May 11, 2017

A Fragile Freedom - Book Review

When most US students, myself included, learn about our nation's early history, our education focuses on a few main events/people - the Founding Fathers, the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War.  The city of Philadelphia features heavily in the earliest part of this history, being the location where the Declaration of Independence was signed and where George Washington served as the first President.  With regard to the period between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, we are presented with the opposing ideologies of "The North" (no slavery) and "The South" (slavery), but not much more than that.  In my own schooling, I cannot remember any discussion or serious mention of slavery existing above the Mason-Dixon Line.  What Erica Armstrong Dunbar has accomplished in her groundbreaking book A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City is, through extensive research and analysis, to examine the culture and climate of the city of Philadelphia during the Antebellum period.  The facts she presents, through primary research and other source review, has permanently altered the way I think about our nation's history, and just how little has changed between then and our problematic society of today.

While the focus is on the historical period between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, the author begins with a cursory history of the initial entry of slavery into America, and how vital the trans-Atlantic slave trade was in providing the labor that built this country.  Clearing forests, constructing buildings, farming the land, and performing household duties were tasks that required slaves to accomplish, because the economy and population levels in the area weren't robust enough to support the work of free men.  In this way, slavery is at the heart and backbone of the United States, especially in the North, where most of the colonial activities took place.

According to the author's research, it was the gradual awakening of some sects of the Quakers that began to change opinions about the nature of slavery and whether it was compatible with religious teachings.  Along with the earliest slaves came stereotypes of laziness, an animalistic nature, and barbaric society.  Slavery was considered by many as a way to break Africans of their base qualities.  It was necessary for them to be enslaved, so as to save them from themselves.  Most Quakers owned slaves; working on their land, in their shops, and toiling in their homes; and it took a long time for the holds of slavery to begin to ease in the minds of these people.  Once it did, however, many became staunch abolitionists, although there was division between whether slaves should be immediately emancipated and left to their own devices, or freed and then bonded as an indentured servant for a period of years.  Ultimately, indentured servitude became the order of the day, which is really just a "slavery light" because although technically "free", they were still under the order of a white overseer, often performing the same tasks they did when they were enslaved.

As some slaves were fully emancipated, or were able to save enough money to buy their freedom, they began to organize into communities within Philadelphia, which afforded them some semblance of social stability and legitimacy.  It's important to remember that "freedom" is not the same as "citizenship".  African Americans were not yet granted citizenship, so they were not regarded the same as white Americans under the law.  Also, slave catchers would regularly try to capture and enslave free African Americans, transporting them to the South for profit.  Those who were able to accumulate some wealth grew into what the author calls the "black elite".  They, and subsequent generations, were able to contribute to their community through the creation of churches, like Mother Bethel A.M.E. (founded in 1794 and still a robust congregation today), mutual aid organization, which provided assistance to those who were most desperate.

No matter how desperate or prosperous, African Americans were still subject to widespread and, sometimes, violent racism.  This was a reality everywhere in the North, although certainly not every non-African American would have believed in it.  It was, however, the dominant perspective at the time.  This is the most eye-opening and disillusioning part of the book, for me.  I had grown up believing that life in the Northern States was equal for all, regardless of race.  As my education has become more focused and sophisticated, I certainly realize that notions of absolute equality were ludicrous, but it's still disheartening to read about the depth and extent of the violence and false assumptions that African Americans dealt with on a daily basis.  The author provides some samples of political cartoons that ran in local newspapers, with black women drawn in horrifying, grotesque, ape-like ways.  Realizing that the ways we regard people of color now isn't so different at all from how we treated them two hundred years ago, it's a bitter pill to swallow. 

It was in the face of this rampant racism that the African American community placed such importance on respectability, especially church culture.  Because they were fighting against such horrid stereotypes, African Americans had to live their lives without blemish in order to be seen as just barely human, whereas the white residents (admittedly, men) could engage in all sorts of behavior and their status was never questioned.  Margot Jefferson discusses this same phenomenon in her book Negroland.  Despite being wealthy and well-respected Chicagoites, Margot's family was regarded as second-class.  She told of her mother holding her children to very high standards, because she understood that they would have to work twice as hard, and accomplish twice as much, to be on par with their white peers.

People of color in Philadelphia were vulnerable as it was, to slave catchers and the whims of law enforcement, but misbehaving people of color could endanger the whole community.  Therefore, church culture extended not just to the congregation during worship times, but to public and private aspects of their everyday lives.  Communities centered around the social and education activities that the churches and aforementioned mutual aid societies provided.  These groups enacted court systems that would punish members, even suspending or banishing them, for infractions.  To be a laboring African American, in need of assistance just to be able to keep out of the poorhouse or away from enslavement, this was a serious incentive to avoid alcohol, fighting, or any other behaviors that were deemed immoral. 

While religious life worked to improve the standing of African Americans, it also laid bare another social ill that was overt and rampant during the Antebellum period - sexism.  Women were active in their churches, but were actively discouraged from becoming pastors or other religious leaders.  When some women expressed dissatisfaction with this, they were openly chastised by their community.  Women were expected to remain in the domestic sphere, with control of their lives being under the dominion of their fathers and, eventually, husbands.  The author discusses what may be considered the infantile inklings of the feminist movement, but it had a long way to go (far beyond the scope of this book) before it would gain any measurable, social traction. 

A Fragile Freedom is an absolutely stunning book, for its depth and breadth of research, the quality of the writing, and the paradigm shifting material it presents.  Through this exploration of slavery in the Northern state of Pennsylvania, important inroads can be made into where the US has come from, and where it is going.  It demonstrates that the racism, sexism, and classism of America today was alive and well in the America of the Antebellum period, even in Philadelphia - the city of brotherly love.

Librorum annis,