Writing freedom: Race, religion, and revolution, 1820–1840

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In a letter to Maria Stewart about one of her essays in The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison praises her argument “pertaining to the condition of that class with which you were complexionally identified.” Although his intent was only to compliment the work of Stewart, he also identified one of the central conundrums for free blacks in the antebellum period: that of being free, yet slave-classed. “We wish to plead our own cause,” the motto for Freedom's Journal, the country's first black newspaper, speaks to both the independence of antebellum black activists and thinkers and the ways in which literature produced for and by free blacks before 1865 could never be entirely independent of slavery and abolitionism. The phrase itself, “wish to plead,” emphasized a desire to address one's status as free and black in America while making a case for giving voice in an environment that would deny the voices of all blacks, free or enslaved. Inevitably, in the American cultural imagination, African Americans were a monolithic group, all slave-classed. In this way, free blacks and enslaved blacks were inextricably intertwined. Thus, the literature produced by free blacks of the nineteenth century, whether or not its subject was slavery, could not escape the context of enslavement. Slave ships, auction blocks, fugitives, and insurrections all served as an omnipresent backdrop. Consequently, black writers of the antebellum period produced a particular kind of literature that walked a political tightrope.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge History of African American Literature
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9780511780967
ISBN (Print)9780521872171
StatePublished - Jan 1 2011

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities


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