Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Just Finished Reading

This was one of those books that I didn't buy just from reading the title - actually I didn't buy the book at all, it was generously given to me as a gift. But, I had read an abstract from the publisher online and was fascinated with its topic.

While the Family or Freedom part of the title fits quite nicely with the subject of the book, I found the subtitle somewhat ambiguous (or vague - I get those two mixed up). People of Color in the Antebellum South, to me, covers both the approximately 250,000 free people of color as well as the almost 4 million enslaved people of color. But clearly the focus of the book is free people of color. Anyhow, that's just my little gripe, and certainly the title did not take away from the quality or readability of the book.

The author, Emily West, who is a senior lecturer at the University of Reading, looks at various petitions by free people of color to voluntarily re-enslave themselves. This is something that I have wondered about, as several times I have come across accounts in newspapers where this was mentioned in a proslavery framework. That is, that the free person of color realized that life was better as a slave than being free and chose to go into slavery.

West's research into these petitions found that the main reason free people of color most often chose to be enslaved was to remain with family. Most of the states the enacted voluntary enslavement legislation allowed free people of color to choose their master and West's use of census data shows that most likely those that chose enslavement wanted to live with a spouse or children owned by a certain master. Another lesser motivation for voluntary enslavement was destitute poverty. Free people of color often lived in a quasi-slavery anyway that reduced their rights and limited their opportunities for advancement, so some of the petitioners chose enslavement to have basic needs (housing, food, clothing) met. It makes one wonder how bad free life had to be to chose to be owned by someone else.

The other major factor for voluntary self enslavement was the numerous debates that many states had on exiling free people of color from their borders. And, while it appears that Arkansas (1860) was the only state that did in fact do so, many other states (including Kentucky) discussed it in the late 1850s and early 1860s. Some free people of color simply chose to be enslaved rather risking the possibility of being uprooted from their home areas, and similar to above, away from an enslaved spouse or other family members.

This book was a fascinating read. It brought up many issues to ponder. I highly recommend it to anyone that is interested in learning more about free people of color in the antebellum South and the myriad of challenges they faced. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give it a 4.5.       

No comments:

Post a Comment