Black Identity & Black Protest in the Antebellum North
Black Identity & Black Protest in the Antebellum North. By Patrick Rael (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. xxii plus 421 pp.).
Born as a response to the emerging civil rights struggle of post World War II America, the scholarship on black protest movements has undergone considerable maturation over the past thirty years. Moving beyond early celebratory histories, this newer scholarship sought to contextualize the centuries-long freedom struggle by locating its origins in early expressions of resistance, especially to the institution of slavery. Slave community scholars like Lawrence Levine and John Blassingame (themselves influenced by the community and cultural studies movement of the 1960s and 1970s) located African Americans’ resistance to slavery not only in open rebellions (a la Nat Turner) or work slowdowns but also in the creation of a unique and vibrant African-American folk culture that expressed black protest. The concept of agency resides at the heart of such scholarship and is a term meant to indicate the manner in which marginalized historical actors attempted to resist oppression. Over this same time period, a strong leftist critique emerged among scholars influenced by the nationalist component of the black freedom struggle. These scholars often engaged their historical subjects directly and morally, questioning the genuine commitment of historical actors to the ongoing freedom struggle and criticizing some past black leaders for assimilating into a fundamentally corrupt and racist western caste system. In a bold new monograph, Patrick Rael takes on the fundamental assumptions residing at the heart of both the community/cultural studies movement and the black nationalist critique of black America.
Departing from the major thrust of slave-community studies, Rael moves the primary site of historical inquiry from the plantation to the urban North. This choice also serves as a departure from an analysis focusing primarily on the folk culture created by slaves to a self-consciously crafted elite-bourgeois intellectual movement created by free blacks in the antebellum North. Rael’s objective is not only to recapture the mind-set of black intellectual thought but also to demonstrate how such thought powerfully shaped black identity and black protest in antebellum America. Rael argues that the gradual disappearance of slavery, relatively small numbers of African Americans, and lack of a uniform system of oppression in the antebellum North led free blacks there to generate a broad, common identity with all peoples of African descent. While free black communities in the American South, Caribbean, or Latin America could not champion the rights of the enslaved without threatening their own independence, Rael insists that, “the North’s very position on the edge of the diaspora enabled free blacks to embrace all people of African descent without the troubling implications such a move presented” for free black communities elsewhere to the south (15). Rael dismisses the slave South, and by extension the folk culture of African Americans, as the primary site of agency for black protest thought in America. Instead, Rael believes that the construction of a nascent pan-African black identity should be viewed primarily as an elite process. “Of all free African-descended people in the diaspora,” Rael concludes that free blacks in the North “were among the first and most ardent champions of the rights of the enslaved” (14).
However, shorn of direct connection to either slavery or free black communities to the south, Rael contends that African Americans in the antebellum North had no choice but to be steeped in the larger intellectual milieu of a northern culture. As a result, free blacks drew upon the prevailing ideological landscape, fashioning a protest ideology that provided a strategy for challenging racial inequality. “Through self-conscious acts of public political speech” (45) black elites employed the tropes of racial uplift, elevation, and respectability as tools to be used in an assault on white supremacist arguments of black inferiority. African-American leaders called on the black masses to obtain education, control their vices, develop a more dignified social presentation, and gain more respectable occupations as a means of countering prevailing racist stereotypes. “[B]lack elites determined that,” Rael observes, “all unjust prejudice aside, African Americans themselves had hampered their own elevation through their own behavior” (188). Black leaders also appropriated the rhetoric of America’s revolutionary tradition, calling upon whites to extend to people of color notions of universal equality and liberty residing at the intellectual heart of America’s founding documents. “The lessons of the incomplete Revolution,” Rael concludes, “served as one of the most solid cornerstones of black protest thought” (256).
Black nationalist scholars have often criticized African-American leaders, such as those at the heart of Rael’s study, for assimilating into mainstream white culture and not developing a broad based critique of liberal-capitalist values. However, Rael insists that, “black leaders before the Civil War did not ‘sell out’ the black working class, nor did they become unwitting or co-opted dupes of a white middle class” (10). Rael is not only critical of those historians who have been conditioned to consider evidence primarily from folk traditions; he is also disapproving of scholars attempting to fit the ideology of black protest thought into the prevailing integration/separation and assimilation/nationalism paradigms. Rael dismisses such approaches and concludes that, “African American spokespersons laid claim to a powerful tradition of public speech, in a way that modern historiography has trouble labeling as anything other than integrationist, assimilationist, and therefore accommodationist” (283). Instead, Rael contends that the black elite deployed a broad range of complex and often contradictory “rhetorical exigencies” (252) to fashion a successful antebellum protest ideology.
Rael’s work succeeds best as an effort to refocus scholarly attention on the existence of a vibrant intellectual movement on the frontier of the African diaspora. However, Rael’s claims concerning the transcendent power of a black protest ideology steeped in bourgeois notions of respectability and racial uplift remain unconvincing. Rael appears too concerned about rescuing the antebellum black elite from the derision of contemporary black nationalist scholars to offer either a clear-eyed assessment of the inability of a small, urban black leadership to reach a wider audience or explore the strategic limitations inherent in their protest thought. While Rael at times takes a stab as such assessment, as when he claims “black jeremiads served to unite African Americans in the common cause of moral elevation,” (175) ultimately such assertions lack enough evidence to carry the point. Rael does succeed throughout his work in exposing the welter of different strategies and varying tributaries into which black protest thought spilled. The nuance and complexity offered are refreshing. However, Rael fails to identify any truly overarching themes and never appears willing to divide the thoughts and tactics of the black elite into primary and secondary categories. Which strain of black nationalist thought, for instance, contained the greatest promise in assaulting the emerging master narrative of white supremacy? Which strain proved more radical, which had the most enduring influence on subsequent generations of black thought? In the end the reader is left with a dizzying array of descriptions and insights but left without any fully complete picture. And this is, after all, part of the historian’s job description: to impose order on a chaotic past through analysis.
Queens University of Charlotte
COPYRIGHT 2004 Journal of Social History
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group