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Frederick Douglass’s perspective on temperance had much in common with the arguments articulated by northern free black conduct writers, reformers and institution builders. Like many of them, Douglass believed that the rhetoric and daily practice of temperance served the larger fight against slavery and racism by contributing to the forms of black self-mastery, independence, and self-determination most feared by proponents of slavery in the United States. Alcohol consumption, meanwhile, cultivated exactly the kind of dependence preferred by slaveholders. Emphasizing its revolutionary potential for African Americans, Douglass characterized temperance as essential for the black freedom struggle throughout his career, continuing to make his case for temperance even in the last decades of the nineteenth century when African Americans faced the specter of the rise of Jim Crow and the encroachment of new forms of oppression and servitude.
In this chapter, Erica Ball focuses on how male-authored slave narratives of the 1850s might be reconsidered as part of a wider conduct discourse depicting what it meant to live “an antislavery life,” itself a form of activism against the slavery system. Taken up by, and often presented to, African Americans as examples of masculine self-transformation, narratives authored by Samuel Ringgold Ward, Solomon Northup, Jermain W. Loguen, and Frederick Douglass taught readers that “dedication to education, morality, and the Protestant work ethic were essential for becoming self-made men.” At the same time, they also reinforced the very same anxieties and ideals articulated in free Black middle-class conduct literature. Ball reenvisions the complex cultural and political work of masculine self-making undertaken by antebellum Black autobiography as exceeding the slave narrative. The result challenges our reading of the slave narrative as emerging within abolitionist politics and focused on proving the violences of (largely southern) slavery and the authority of Black writers who had experienced them. Rather, such narratives testified to an “emerging Black middle-class identity and political culture” that also contested a racial capitalist logic of accounting for Black citizenship.
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.