Off the Plantation

They Who Would Be Free: Blacks’ Search for Freedom, 1830-1861

by Jane H. Pease, by William H. Pease
Atheneum, 331 pp., $3.95 (paper)

The Emancipation of Angelina Grimké

by Katherine DuPre Lumpkin
University of North Carolina Press, 265 pp., $11.95

As the crisp outline left when a cooky cutter has finished its business serves to remind us, it is occasionally possible to see the shape of things as well from the outside as from within. That plantation slavery was much more than a labor system most readers of American history understand well enough: how much more is being slowly absorbed as the studies of those who lived just outside the system accumulate. In the last year several distinguished works have appeared on slavery as slaves and their owners experienced it. But it is a measure of the increasing sophistication of this field of scholarship that we also have several important new works of historians who have gone off the plantation, so to speak, to explore the social meaning of slavery for abolitionists and the free black victims of society, those who were in a technical sense the chattel property of nobody.

Even for these “outsiders” slavery was a dominating and coercive condition of life, dictating personal choices and public action. This was true for Angelina Grimké, the well-born daughter of a Charleston slaveholding family, who experienced the challenge of slavery very personally; the challenge became, in the view of Katherine DuPre Lumpkin, the spur that led in time, almost too late in time, to her self-liberation from the psychological and social limitations of nineteenth-century women. Angelina came through at last, and so did many of the free blacks and black leaders in the antislavery movement, whose difficulties “just outside” slavery have been described in new works by Ira Berlin and Jane and William Pease.

But the collective story of each group is on the whole depressing, filled with more frustration than triumph. The defeats are a register of the solid entrenchment of the peculiar institution in the social and political fabric of the nation, even as the economic position of slavery in the Upper South was deteriorating. The victories were usually personal; the defeats the result of fragmentation as organizations fell apart on what the Peases call “rightlessness” and “powerlessness.”

The struggles of the South’s free black caste and black antislavery spokesmen in the North are all the more chilling when read in conjunction with certain of the more recent works on slavery itself, which tend, on the whole, to sound the upbeat, to stress how even in the jaws of chattel bondage, the enslaved were able, in the words of Eugene D. Genovese in Roll, Jordan, Roll, to lay “the foundations for a separate black culture while enormously enriching American culture as a whole.” If slaves were able to do that, how is it that free blacks, Northern and Southern, met with so much frustration and despair?

Though Ira Berlin’s main concern is to give an authoritative account of how things were, rather than why they were not different, this question is implicit in his very important, detailed study of the South’s free black population. His answer is at once simple and complex. The slave had …

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