Thursday, June 18, 2015

Riddle of Independence: Independent but not Free

Danielle Allen will give the Program in African American History’s 2015 Juneteenth Freedom Symposium talk at the Library Company. While in residence, our Mellon Scholars interns read Dr. Allen’s Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality and prepared a display of items (reproduced below) from the Library Company’s African Americana collection in response to themes in the book.

Independent but not free. What did freedom mean for a 19th-century African American? These four items demonstrate that even free African Americans were vulnerable to racism or sexism. In addition to social discrimination and prejudice, the law itself often failed to protect the rights and safety of free blacks.

Frontispiece from Narrative of Sojourner Truth. Boston, 1875.
In her powerful “Ain’t I a Woman” speech delivered to the 1851 Woman’s Rights Convention in Ohio, Sojourner Truth brought to the forefront the overbearing intersectionalities that black women faced. Whether free or enslaved, African American women were both the color of the oppressed as well as the gender of the subordinate. They were frequently overlooked in the burgeoning women’s rights movement and often sidelined in the antislavery struggle. Dictated to Olive Gilbert and first published in 1850, the Narrative of Sojourner Truth is a biography of this great African American activist.  Narrative describes the Riddle of Independence that Truth faced throughout her life. Even after obtaining her freedom, she was still not seen as a full human being by many in American society.

Illustration from Jesse Torrey, A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery 
in the United States. Philadelphia: Jesse Torrey, 1817.
In A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery, Jesse Torrey documents the realities of “free” life for African Americans. Rape, murder, assault, and kidnapping into slavery were ever-present possibilities for a free African American in both the North and the South. Laws and the legal process frequently failed to protect African Americans and their tenuous freedom. The image shown here depicts a free black man being attacked by two white men on horses, their fierce faces contrasting with his frightened stance. After the passage of the 1808 federal law banning the importation of African slaves, a black market arose to steal free blacks from the North and sell them into the chattel slavery of the South.

Anti-Fugitive Slave Law Meeting. 
Syracuse, New York, 1851. 
Opponents of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act convened an ad-hoc meeting in Syracuse, New York, in 1851. The meeting’s report reveals the instability of freedom and helps us understand the perceived illegality of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. The new law required all law enforcement officials to comply with returning slaves and penalized those who did not, even in states where slavery had been outlawed. With meeting attendees pledging to disobey the law because of its unconstitutionality, the riddle of independence leads us to question whether or not we as a nation trust in the law of the land. 

Proceedings of the Woman’s Rights Conventions, 
Held at Seneca Falls & Rochester, N.Y., July & August, 1848
New York: Robert J. Johnston, 1870.
After decades of activism in the antislavery movement, many women reformers began mobilizing their networks to fight for equal opportunity and protection under the law for women. Activists organized the 1848 Woman’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. The Proceedings of the Woman’s Rights Conventions documents the course of meetings that resulted in the creation of the Declaration of Sentiments, a platform for the new women’s rights movement. The Declaration of Sentiments mirrored the language of the Declaration of Independence to show how the latter document failed to grant all people the right to freedom irrespective of gender.

Jalyn Gordon, Joshua Johnson, Hannah Wallace, & Dominique Washington
2015 Mellon Scholars Interns 

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