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As If She Were Free is about the emancipatory acts of African and African-descended women in the Americas from the sixteenth through the early twentieth century. The stories of some two dozen individuals discussed in these chapters constitute a collective biography that narrates the history of emancipation as experienced by women in the western hemisphere. This history began upon the arrival of enslaved people from Africa in the Americas in the early sixteenth century and continued into the twentieth century as their descendants pursued an ongoing quest for liberty. As If She Were Free narrates this individual and collective struggle – in which African-descended women spoke and acted in ways that declared that they had a right to determine the course of their lives. This book, a collective biography of women who renounced their commodification and exploitation, articulates a new feminist history of freedom.
As If She Were Free brings together the biographies of twenty-four women of African descent to reveal how enslaved and recently freed women sought, imagined, and found freedom from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries in the Americas. Our biographical approach allows readers to view large social processes – migration, trade, enslavement, emancipation – through the perspective of individual women moving across the boundaries of slavery and freedom. For some women, freedom meant liberation and legal protection from slavery, while others focused on gaining economic, personal, political, and social rights. Rather than simply defining emancipation as a legal status that was conferred by those in authority and framing women as passive recipients of freedom, these life stories demonstrate that women were agents of emancipation, claiming free status in the courts, fighting for liberty, and defining and experiencing freedom in a surprising and inspiring range of ways.