Blog Post

Slavery and the Framing of the African American Past: Reflections from a Historian of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Stephanie Smallwood

Does the from slavery to freedom narrative still fit? Does the before-and-after framing of African American history around the pivotal event of legal emancipation still adequately organize the narrative arc of this field of studies? These were among the central questions session chair Eric Foner (Columbia Univ.) asked panelists to address in Friday morning’s “Slavery and Freedom” session. Foner noted that the enormously influential framework, first introduced nearly 70 years ago by John Hope Franklin’s landmark textbook From Slavery to Freedom: A History of American Negroes (1947), has come under pressure in recent years. Why, Foner asked, referencing a recent review essay by Carole Emberton on the “unwriting” of the freedom narrative, do growing numbers of historians seem more interested in marking the limits of freedom rather than celebrating its triumph over slavery?

With his suggestion that it is a “foreshortened notion of freedom” that has shaped our master narratives of African American history, Walter Johnson (Harvard Univ.) stood somewhat apart from the other panelists, all of whom seemed to prefer to celebrate rather than question the freedoms gained by emancipation. Brenda Stevenson’s (Univ. of California, Los Angeles) detailed analysis of the ways freedpeople formalized their marriages; Thavolia Glymph’s (Duke Univ.) emphasis on the ways the enslaved made their cause also that of the war to save the Union; and Annette Gordon-Reed’s (Harvard Univ.) observation during the Q&A discussion that claims African Americans can take for granted today are possible only because of the 19th-century amendments to the constitution—all point to the singular importance of legal emancipation and the enormous interest many historians continue to have in the myriad ways freedpeople breathed life into the freedom they won by emancipation.

What I appreciated most about the discussion was the opportunity to regard both lines of argument and interpretation as “right.” In fact, the discussion reflected our need to do two things at once: to tell the stories of freedpeople’s very real struggles to give material substance to legal emancipation while also reckoning with the tenuousness of black freedom and the “afterlife” of slavery that resonates to the present day. This is what I took Johnson to be suggesting when he drew from Karl Marx’s essay “On the Jewish Question” (1843) to ask that we understand “political emancipation” to have ushered in “both . . . terrific promises and bounded limits” (emphasis mine).

To bring this back to the rich discussion during the Q&A portion of the session, Gordon-Reed was quite right when she insisted that “if citizenship is important in a republic, then we have to credit the achievement of legal citizenship as a sharp and meaningful break.” But should that form the limit of what we imagine freedom can and ought to be? This is the important question that the newer scholarship’s emphasis on the limits of freedom is trying to ask, and it need not be taken as minimizing what was indeed gained by the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. On this point, I appreciated Johnson’s suggestion that we need to be able to “hold both of those things together” as a useful way out of an otherwise false dichotomy, very much in the same vein as the distinction Clayborne Carson made during the opening roundtable between the very real achievements of the formal Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and the larger black freedom struggle that is ongoing.

To the degree that we are obligated to check the pulse of our scholarship and its relevance in contemporary American society, it seems worth noting that there are arguably more African Americans now than an at any time since the 1960s who might say that scholarship celebrating the freedoms gained by legal emancipation does not resonate with their experience of citizenship today. In the wake of voter ID laws, the Supreme Court’s gutting of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and other forms of African American disfranchisement, together with the crisis in racialized policing, mass incarceration, and other forms of growing racial disparities, the sense that black freedom has come under attack in the past several decades is very real, and all the more alarming precisely because a two-term African American presidency has not halted the threat. This hard reality makes it imperative that we be willing to ask whether slavery’s chokehold on black life was ever fully extinguished. I think that is precisely the question that animates the scholarship that has turned increasing attention to freedom’s limits.

I have said little here about slavery, and that is because scholarship on the institution that governed black life in what became the United States for 250 of the past 400 years did not get the kind of focused attention it deserved during the session. Collapsing slavery and freedom into a single discussion has its merits, but it also makes it difficult to give due attention to historiographic trends in the study of both phenomena, particularly when there were no scholars working outside the 19th century represented on the panel. How might the voices of scholars working on Africa, the transatlantic slave trade, and slave societies across the colonial Americas have given the conversation a different tilt?

I’ll close by reprieving the question I posed to the panelists during the session, and suggest that one of the biggest challenges historians of slavery face as we go forward is to think more broadly about the scope of our field in both temporal and spatial terms. When I entered graduate school in the late 1980s, to study slavery was to study a distant past. Today, I teach a course on contemporary slavery and human trafficking that would have been inconceivable—nonsensical in fact—20 years ago. Now it feels essential, if vexing. Just this past week Harvard University’s History Design Studio released a video exploring the relationship between chattel slavery and mass incarceration. Articulating the study of chattel slavery to modern forms of bonded labor, human trafficking, and mass incarceration is not a simple or straightforward task. But it is a vital question whose salience brings me back to Johnson’s assertion that slavery needs to be understood as “the central moral event of modernity.”


Stephanie Smallwood is associate professor of history at the University of Washington. She tweets @prof_smallwood.


SESSION 2: Slavery and Freedom