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Faculty Book: To Live an Antislavery Life

Personal Politics and the Antebellum Black Middle Class

Nov. 5, 2012

Photo of book cover of To Live An Antislavery Life

Erica L. Ball's book explores personal politics and the antebellum black middle class.

With her book "To Live an Antislavery Life", published this month by the University of Georgia Press, historian Erica L. Ball, associate professor of American studies, aims to do nothing less than prompt a rethinking of the relationship between the personal and the political among the northern black middle class in the years before the Civil War.

Through innovative readings of slave narratives, sermons, fiction, convention proceedings, and the advice literature printed in such forums as Freedom’s Journal, the North Star and the Anglo-African Magazine, according to the publisher, Ball demonstrates that black figures, such as Susan Paul, Frederick Douglass and Martin Delany, consistently urged readers to internalize their political principles and to interpret all their personal ambitions, private familial roles and domestic responsibilities in light of the freedom struggle. Ultimately, they were admonished to embody the abolitionist agenda by living what the fugitive Samuel Ringgold Ward called an “antislavery life.” 

Far more than calls for northern free blacks to engage in what scholars call “the politics of respectability,” African American writers characterized true antislavery living as an oppositional stance rife with radical possibilities, a deeply personal politics that required free blacks to transform themselves into model husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, self-made men and transnational freedom fighters in the mold of revolutionary figures from Haiti to Hungary. In the process, Ball argues, antebellum black writers crafted a set of ideals — simultaneously respectable and subversive — for their elite and aspiring African American readers to embrace in the decades before the Civil War.

Ball joined the Cal State Fullerton faculty in 2006, following stints at Union College (where she was assistant professor of history), Hunter College, Queens College, Baruch College and City College of New York (adjunct lecturer). An alumna of Wesleyan University, where she earned a B.A. in history with honors in ’93, Ball earned her Ph.D. in history from the City University of New York in 2002.

An excerpt from “To Live an Antislavery Life” by Erica L. Ball:

Beginning in the early nineteenth century, as a small population of free African Americans carved out a space for their communities in the North, they also created a print culture that spoke to the cultural and political concerns of an emerging black middle class. African American writers, minsters, newspaper editors, and public figures repeatedly placed middle-class forms of self-fashioning, domestic family practices, and transnational political discourse in the service of the fight to end slavery and expand African American civil and political rights. In essays, speeches memoirs, and fiction, these authors advised aspiring African Americans to live up to their antislavery principles by following advice on matters of personal and domestic conduct, fashioning themselves into ideal men and women, and transforming themselves into living, breathing refutations of the arguments used to justify the institution of slavery and its concomitant racism. These writers further urged readers to enact their anti-slavery principles as independent men in the public sphere; to cultivate these principles within the bosom of the family circle; to claim their roles as virtuous mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters; and to imagine themselves as heirs to an international revolutionary tradition that stretched back to antiquity, ready to sacrifice in the name of freedom.

. . . . During the Civil War, free northern blacks placed their antislavery efforts in the service of the nation, recruiting African American troops for the Union and enlisting in the colored regiments. Northern free blacks — some volunteers, some conscripts — accounted for 18 percent of the 180,000 African American Union soldiers, serving in higher proportions than whites in many districts.6 When explaining their support for black service or personal decisions to enlist, elite and aspiring free blacks expressed joy at the prospect of embodying their antislavery principles by becoming freedom’s soldiers, aiding their brothers and sisters in bondage, taking up arms against the society that hoped to enslave them, and following in the footsteps of their hero, Toussaint-Louverture.

. . . . Always aware that their few educational and material advantages moved them into the higher classes of free African Americans, elite and aspiring northern blacks immediately positioned themselves as the patrons of freedmen and freedwomen as the South became liberated. Some worried about the former slaves’ ability to secure the political rights and material foundation believed necessary for manly independence. One black Minnesota resident wrote to the Weekly Anglo-African to suggest “that we of the North should look after our forsaken and unlettered brethren. They are unable to contend for their own rights, and I think that we should organize for the very purpose.” He recommended that specific prominent African Americans, including Frederick Douglass, Charles L. Remond, William Wells Brown, and J.W. Loguen press the federal government to give freedmen possession of abandoned land.

. . . . For these now unambiguously elite African Americans, the Civil War offered a chance to fulfill a long-awaited prophetic role that had become an essential part of their identity. For decades, they had sought to transform themselves into ideal free men and women, to embody resistance to slavery, and to place every aspect of their lives in the service of the freedom struggle. They saw themselves as having a duty to act and execute divine will, to place their lives and homes in the service of the fight for freedom, and to take up positions in their generation’s pantheon of heroes. As African Americans trained to believe in the transformative power of self-improvement, these men and women now hoped to spread their faith in the virtues they extolled to the South’s newly freed men and women. In the process, aspiring northerners would come to inform the politics and identity of a new generation of African American activists in the South: the race men and women of the post-Reconstruction era. 

Excerpted from "To Live an Antislavery Life" by Erica L. Ball, with the permission of the University of Georgia Press, © 2012 by the University of Georgia Press. Learn more here.

By: Christopher Bugbee, 657-278-8487

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