Maintaining a Radical Vision of African Americans in the Age of Freedom

Maintaining a Radical Vision of African Americans in the Age of Freedom

Kidada E. Williams

We have come a long way since W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction (1935). That revolutionary tome attempted to confront histories of the post–Civil War era that traditionally maligned African Americans and their efforts to see their dreams of legal freedom fulfilled. It became the cornerstone of radical black historical traditions.[1] Using a multidisciplinary approach and building upon the work of predecessors like George Washington Williams’s A History of the Negro Race in America: Negroes, as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens (1882) and Carter G. Woodson’s The Negro in Our History (1922), Du Bois conjured a postwar world centering African Americans in the reconstructing of American democracy.[2] He also castigated racist historians for the twisted histories they had produced and provided future scholars with a blueprint for revealing the full scope of the war and Reconstruction’s transformative nature for African Americans and the nation.

Since Du Bois’s landmark book, scholars have excavated new and familiar sources and forged groundbreaking histories that enrich our knowledge of the era.[3] Many of them continue to drill down into Reconstruction policies and their effects on African Americans’ lives and black people’s contributions to the shape of American life.[4] Others leaned into the gravitational pulls of emancipation.[5] Using records like those from the Freedmen’s Bureau, civilian and military sources compiled by the Freedmen and Southern Society Project, criminal justice and penal records, and more, these scholars have explored the freedom generation’s efforts to carve out their visions of freedom.[6] These visions saw black folks embark on campaigns to reunite families and build independent institutions to gain access to a variety of services, rights, and authority in governance. Whether they study labor and political consciousness or family and landownership, new generations of historians have explored both the triumphs and tragedies of the era.

As far as we have come, we have yet to capture the full kaleidoscope of African American life. The works of recent pioneers, like Eric Foner, Elsa Barkley Brown, Leslie Rowland, Thomas Holt, Tera Hunter, Steven Hahn, and Thavolia Glymph—who pushed the needle forward, refashioning postbellum histories in ways that include but also move beyond the focus on the political—exemplifies the radical visions and methods we still need to cover both the broad strokes of postwar African America and the intricate details of black people’s lives.[7] Advancing this field by adopting hybrid methodologies to address more of the large and small-scale components of how African Americans experienced the postwar period, embracing what Nathan D. B. Connolly has called a “Black Power Method” of using antiracist methods to recover black history, and making our research available to popular audiences are how we pay the debts we owe both to the fathers and mothers of Black Reconstruction and the audiences we serve.[8]

African American history in the postwar period still needs audacious scholarship that connects the history we know to the more obscure inner lives of African Americans experiencing a world remade by the crucibles of war, emancipation, citizenship rights and new forms of governance, and the backlash of Redemption and Jim Crow. We need more histories that delve even deeper into a greater variety of sources and open larger windows onto the ways the changes taking shape affected blacks. The field also needs histories that are intersectional and transnational, accounting for the many differences among African Americans and their wide-ranging impacts on the changing nation and world. Daring research marking Reconstruction’s sesquicentennial ensures we carry into the future radical visions of African Americans in the age of freedom.

Intellectually, we know that African Americans are not a monolith. And yet, scholarship on postwar African America is replete with silhouettes of black life—generalized accounts of “freedpeople,” “black southerners,” or “black fill-in-the-blank-state-or-group” (Virginians, women) in one area of postemancipation life or another (politics, law).[9] Some straight Americanists (and African Americanists too) writing about black people during Reconstruction seem to lack the extensive training in African American historical methodologies. They might not know about or embrace the inventive, insurgent politics of centering black folk and interrogating white perspectives in archival sources, as Du Bois did. The result is often histories of composite African Americans that rarely devote the time and energy to fleshing out the details of black people’s lives. Scholars extensively trained in the field and rooted in the radical historical tradition are more likely to craft histories in which the richness of black people’s thoughts, cultures, and lives are developed. This is not about citation politics, at least not in my view; rather, it is about more postwar historians using the knowledge and perhaps methodological priorities of African American history and studies to enhance understanding of the era.

Too often, we fail to account for differences that extend well beyond our standard analyses of class, gender, or even place. We cannot afford to continue writing generally about black southerners or even black Mississippians or Californians. Scholars writing about African Americans need to account for not just sex or recent enslavement but other intersections like age, color, (dis)ability, and health, especially when archival sources indicate those differences and the ways they shaped black people’s lives. When we account for location, we should be considering not just an individual’s place in the archival source but also his or her birthplace versus migration histories, if that’s indicated in the source or in other sources like census records. We must consider, as Tiya Miles and Barbara Krauthamer make clear, people with Afro-Native identities.[10] To move forward, we need to commit to producing histories of fully developed black subjects. Doing this enables us to address such issues as the interiorities of black life, personhood, and emotions.

Focusing even more on black people’s inner and emotional lives could enable historians to learn more about the mechanics of freedom. How exactly did African Americans’ politics change when they had power to govern? What maintained their political faith or chipped away at it? How did this vary? How exactly did families work out and come to terms with the challenges of relocating kin?[11] How did literacy develop for individuals?[12]

We make a lot of assumptions about how freedom worked and for whom. We need to continue working to understand who achieved their freedom dreams and who did not, and the reasons why. The afterlives of slavery and the economic contractions that followed the war certainly weighed down on members of the freedom generation wherever they lived. But many people survived and thrived, if only for a time. How much did an individual’s or family’s prospects and ability to withstand the challenges of freedom have to do with one’s grit, luck, or decision-making? Under what conditions were the hopeful seeds of freedom most likely to germinate? What caused some to not take root or to rot? There are likely no neat answers, but understanding the daily decisions people made as well as their consequences might enable us to apprehend the variety of factors leading to an individual’s or group’s success or failure.[13]

Emancipation and its aftermaths were violent processes in obvious and obscure ways. African Americans’ narratives are dotted with scenes of freedom’s resulting violence. Historians of postemancipation have revealed that it was behavioral—committed by people who intended harm by turning former slaves out into the world with few, if any resources, by snatching children or life-sustaining property, or by menacing individuals and families in campaigns of terror and killing. It was also structural—involving societal and institutional anti-blackness, hardship generated by economic collapse, and government indifference or inability to redress dispossession or vigilante strikes.

Underexamined questions about how people experienced violence remain. How did African Americans document this violence and articulate their injuries from it? For example, what did black victims think they lost economically or psychologically to white violence and terror? Were victims able to rebuild their lives in the ruins of a massacre or nightriding strike? What factors contributed to recovery or deterioration? For whom? How did people convey and act out their suffering? Was it possible to grow beyond these hurts? What did that look like? If it wasn’t possible, did victims turn inward and self-harm? Did they inflict their hurt on others? Some of these answers are hiding in plain sight, particularly in sources where blacks reveal how much cash or property they lost or how loved ones remained troubled by what they saw or endured. But we cannot and will not recognize the significance of this evidence without shifting our focus and broadening our methodologies.

As we do this work, we should try to move beyond our paralytic fear of pathologizing African Americans and toward the kind of comprehensive analysis of soul wounds Nell Painter and Thavolia Glymph call for.[14] Such an analysis means being willing and able to sit with sources where black people communicate their intense suffering long enough to understand what they thought and felt about it and then translate it for others. It means resisting the urge to craft histories of healing or superhuman triumph over tragedy when the archive indicates life-altering and soul-killing injuries.

Those of us who take up this work should, of course, be cautious about generalizing trauma or subscribing to frameworks of popular trauma culture.[15] Every person who experienced a tragic event was not left with traumatic injuries or ones that can be neatly traced to specific events or archival sources. Indeed, researchers are right to question who was traumatized and by what. But these caveats should not stop us from investigating both major episodes of hurt and the quotidian harms that left individuals disturbed, especially when African Americans articulate this kind of suffering generally or on the heels of an incident particularly.

Another area ready for deeper exploration surrounds African American collective memory of Black Reconstruction. What individual and collective memories did blacks of the era forge about their lives and experiences? Did they only focus on black politicians? What were black people’s modes of transferring memories and histories of Reconstruction from one generation to the next? What black memories were sustained? When and how did certain memories of the era fade?[16]

Contemporary historians have access to theoretical and methodological approaches as well as sources not available even a decade ago. These tools can help us answer these questions and more. We should avail ourselves of all the resources at our disposal to provide more representation of comprehensive African American personhood. For example, researchers typically encounter African Americans singularly, in collections like the Freedmen’s Bureau Records and congressional hearings for the South or newspapers and court records for other regions. We extract as much information as we can from these, but we are often left with momentary scraps of our subjects’ lives. Digitized sources, creative works, and methodological approaches can augment the histories we produce.

Scholars should use digitized materials to dive deeper into the murky waters of our black subjects’ lives to learn more about them and the environments they inhabited. Running a subject’s name through digitized collections like census or Freedmen’s Bureau Records can yield information that is not always available in newspapers or legal proceedings.[17] Such work in vital records and government documents enables researchers to potentially reconstruct people’s lives before and after they appear in the first archival source. Analyzing digitized materials and visualizing data should become standard practice for exhuming the conditions of black people’s public and private lives.

Plumbing the sumptuous creative works depicting the era—classic novels like Margaret Walker’s Jubilee or newer ones like Lalita Tademy’s Citizens Creek (on Afro-Creek families in Indian Territory)—presents another avenue for excavating even more information on black life and culture. On literature’s relevance for rethinking the worlds we create when we write about the past, Karla Holloway writes, “Fiction encourages a reader to tap into a literary imagination that is richer than our personal experiences. . . . [It] encourages our consideration of perspectives in ways that our personal experiences or the narrowed frames of a case study might not. . . . Consider how frequently readers continue thinking past an author’s conclusion to a story.”[18] Holloway’s commentary about personal experiences is applicable to historical research.

Archival sources or government records, like congressional testimonies, on racial violence typically provide the kinds of bird’s eye views of history that enable us to write broadly about a number of subjects. Black historical fiction, like Tademy’s Red River (on the Colfax Massacre) provides a pedestrian level view of how African Americans remade their lives in freedom only to have them turned upside down and inside out by white terror. Postemancipation novels can enable us to heed the seemingly irrelevant minutiae in archival sources—the quotidiana of life—information that, in the case of the Klan hearings, was important to witnesses, like how they organized their families or their fears about recouping their losses—but deemed extraneous to the congressional investigators and sometimes to researchers prioritizing political violence during Reconstruction.[19] Literature can encourage us to “think past” the first or last archival trace. Combining literary and historical analysis can help us imagine and represent the facts of life we encounter in fragmentary form in our research, like selecting or remaining with a mate or handling personal betrayal, where families decided to live, what non-cash crops families decided to grow, and what products they decided to make and how long it took. We can carry this insight into the archives and consider the ways black interiorities—thoughts, perceptions, and emotions—present themselves in traditional records. In essence, treating creative works as alternative archives and combining literary and historical analysis can enable us to be more faithful witnesses of the black past.[20]

Thankfully, we don’t have to start from scratch. Our American studies and African American studies counterparts have developed great models for integrating history and close textual analysis. They have also produced brilliant knowledge about the visual culture of freedom that needs more engagement by historians.[21] African Americanists covering the postwar period have to be willing to tap into their inter- and multidisciplinary imaginations to produce histories that illuminate the intricacies of black people’s lives. Those who are uncomfortable with cultural theory need look no further than the scholars of the slave trades, like Stephanie Smallwood and Saidiya Hartman; of slavery and emancipation, like Jennifer Morgan, Stephanie Camp, Tiya Miles, and Dylan Penningroth; and of postemancipation violence, like Hannah Rosen, Carole Emberton, and Elaine Frantz Parsons, who bridge archival research and cultural theory and blaze the trails that help us navigate challenging archives.[22]

In depicting comprehensive black personhood, we need to move beyond the saints and victims—the avatars of African America, people who represented the race’s best face or those who were always or only victimized by whites or the state. Bring forth the sinners—the swindlers and cheats, creeps and predators, no-count or trifling men and scandalous or cut-throat women, the people who, as Kali Gross put it, “lived by a different set of values,” and were not and often are not part of a useable black past.[23] A few scholars have shirked off what Nell Painter called the “shadow narrative” that sometimes stops us from writing about certain subjects out of fear white supremacists might use our research to justify racism or malign African Americans. Shane White’s research on confidence men and gold diggers in the postemancipation North is one example. [24] Gross, who has bravely rejected the all too common belief that black people have to “be clean to merit scholarly attention or be legible as human beings” to tell the riveting but fundamentally human story of a scheming murderess, is another.[25] Exploring more of these taboo subjects and breaking even more of the silences surrounding the dark underbellies of African American life and what different black people felt or thought of them helps us to better understand the complexities of emancipation.[26]

A focus on the intricacies of black personhood means also exploring the complexities of African Americans’ interpersonal relations. The shadows of slavery and the grinding challenges of surviving freedom stalked people, resulting in them inflicting physical, economic, and moral injuries on others, reflecting Zora Neale Hurston’s famous quip that “skinfolk ain’t . . . kinfolk.” Crime logs and the WPA ex-slave narratives, for example, point to evidence of harm and betrayal caused in part by the convulsing world and also by individuals rejecting an ethos of black mutuality or abusing power and controlling others. Family histories as well as records from civil and criminal cases involving black plaintiffs and defendants reveal the kind of internal strife that might have eaten away at individuals, families, and communities. This too is part of the history of Black Reconstruction.

Today we understand that most physical violence occurs between familiars. But when we think historically, we tend to focus on “white-on-black” violence and sometimes “black-on-white” violence. What did interpersonal violence between blacks look like during Reconstruction? To what degree did white supremacy inform it? How much of it was simply base human behavior? How did it vary or remain the same? What did black victims, perpetrators, and observers think and say about it? We do not have to replace enlightening research on racial or state violence with that on interpersonal violence. But, if we believe, as Du Bois did, that African Americans are “ordinary human beings,” then we must treat our black subjects as such, both heroic and fallible.[27]

E. L. Doctorow wrote, “The historian tells you what happened. The novelist tells you how it felt.” Historians interested in illuminating the full personhood of African Americans cannot afford and should not accept this binary. With decades of research uncovering the lives African Americans built after slavery, we’ve mastered the broad strokes of what happened during Reconstruction. We know less about what black people thought and felt about the reshuffling of American life and how that informed how they operated in the world. In essence, we need to move beyond reporting the bare historical facts of Black Reconstruction and into disinterring even more of the emotional contents of black people’s lives.[28]

With limited first-person voices available, historians need to be willing to make room (and be granted a bit of freedom by gatekeepers) for a bit more careful, informed speculation in order to recreate African Americans’ thoughts on what slavery’s breaking and holding chains felt like in different parts of their lives.[29] A history of African American sensibilities after slavery isn’t about making up history. Rather, it’s about using the facts—as the archives we consult present them—and then deploying a historian’s insight to stretch the field of view to present more of black people’s evolving knowledge and sensibilities about the developments unfolding in the age of freedom.

To do this work, we have to be willing to, as Martha Hodes writes, “take leaps of grounded imagination.”[30] With narrative fragments scattered across archives, we are not flying completely in the dark. African Americans gave voice to the ways the changing world resonated in their inner lives. Sources exist where blacks across the nation told their stories and spoke their truths about their yearnings and disappointments. They expressed their varied emotional reactions through their words and deeds and in a multitude of settings.[31]

Emotions, or sensibility history, remains a fairly new field. Few African Americanists have embraced research on histories of emotions to the degree we could and maybe should.[32] Scholars are not ignorant of black people’s expressed emotions, to be sure. Historians document African American emotives but often use these speech acts and expressive behaviors in service of “demonstrating black people’s humanity” or making larger points about the questions we’re trying to answer about economic independence, kinship networks, community structures, citizenship, and politics. What I am suggesting is using emotions as another lens through which we view the black past. Comprehensive histories of the postwar period require allowing black people’s representations of their personal judgments, longings, and fears to stand on their own as historical evidence, see where they converge or diverge and change over time or by person or context, and extract the richness of black people’s interiorities.[33]

Historians can integrate more emotion into the histories they write about African Americans by engaging a wider variety of sources and integrating different fields of methodological inquiry. Bridging archival research with cultural theory emanating from American studies and anthropology allows us to confront a range of questions that continue to beg answers. Psychologists and neuroscientists have led much of the way for interrogating emotions, but anthropologists and historians, especially William Reddy, have been examining both the biological and cultural dimensions of emotions to carve new paths for historicizing them.[34] Venturing down these paths and making new ones will enable us to rewrite the history of how African Americans experienced and responded to the changing world.

Scholars like Leslie Schwalm, Jim Downs, and Thavolia Glymph, for example, have unearthed the horrors African Americans faced during the war, but we do not yet know if and how these tragedies latched themselves onto victims’ lives and informed what they did in the years ahead.[35] We know that wartime freedom did not flow in one direction and that thousands died in refugee and contraband camps. What did freedom seekers think and feel about what they experienced and witnessed? What did people do to survive? What became of the survivors of these tragedies? Did they carry with them the scars of what they experienced? How much of what they did in life can be traced to nightmares in the camps?[36]

In his 1965 poem “Emancipation: 1865,” Langston Hughes wrote of a telescope of dreams. When looking through the telescope, one sees the capacious world of freedom that is ripe with possibilities for African Americans to fulfill what Robin D. G. Kelley calls the “black radical imaginations” of freedom. Turn the telescope around, and one sees a world shrunken by the realities of racial subjugation that syncs with the work of scholars who are complicating or “unwriting” the freedom narrative.” [37] What did black people feel about the narrowing fields of view for their freedom dreams? How did that inform whether they despaired or reset their sights on other, sometimes more achievable targets?

Scholars have illuminated some African Americans’ individual and collective emotions about the limits of freedom by using congressional testimonies, WPA slave narratives, and information wanted ads. In Terror in the Heart of Freedom, for example, Hannah Rosen unearths the emotional distress sexual violence caused African American girls, women, and their families during Reconstruction. Heather Andrea Williams has done similar work in Help Me to Find My People, revealing the emotional landscape of freedpeople’s search for their kin.[38] However, more can be done to unveil black people’s individual or collective shame, nostalgia, and disgust over a variety of issues, ranging from the state down to themselves and their kin. There are, of course, real theoretical and methodological challenges to doing this work. But when we encounter African American emotives, we can pay even closer attention and enrich the histories we write.

Similarly, it’s not enough for historians to document these tragedies or sensibilities; we need to see the work through by illuminating African Americans’ understandings of their meanings, especially when sources point to it. Survivors knew, for example, that the violence of white terror attacks wasn’t a one-off thing. It lingered, casting shadows over victims’ lives. African Americanists would do well to consider scholarship from fields like postcolonial studies to better understand how people experience and work through violent conflict and other types of societal upheaval. In terms of emotions, our historical subjects knew what they felt when they articulated or acted out their feelings. I am not suggesting that research on black interiority, full personhood, or emotions has never been done, because some scholars have done it, brilliantly. Rather, it is not yet the norm and the histories we develop about Black Reconstruction would be enhanced if it were.

Reconstruction was a critical era in African American history. To project our knowledge to a wider public, we need more histories of the postwar period written for and accessible to people outside the historical profession. The Internet is teeming with people who are hungry for African American history. Many of them are intellectual heirs to the Black Power activists who confronted the neglect of black history. These radicals championed the Black Studies movement and built black history museums from scratch. Students and activists attending or living in communities surrounding colleges and universities demanded Black Studies programs on campuses and the integration of African Americans into U.S. and world history at all levels of society.

Many self-taught and partially academically taught intellectuals who embrace African American history are seeking to repair deficits in their historical educations. No matter how much shade historians throw Henry Louis Gates’s way, the historically curious public watches documentaries like Many Rivers to Cross in droves. They borrow from libraries series like Africans in America and individual books like From Slavery to Freedom and sometimes build their personal collections with items they never return. Others take to social media sites lamenting the things they never knew about black history.

On Twitter, historians respond with crowd-sourcing events like #FergusonSyllabus or #CharlestonSyllabus, where they share the titles of articles and books to help people understand the links between the past and present.[39] Unfortunately, much of this scholarship is locked behind paywalls or encoded in books intended more for other historians than for the larger public. The reading lists typically lack the educational structure often provided in history courses. Historians are also competing with a profusion of inaccurate websites and YouTube videos, some of which were birthed in racial malice (like so-called “Black Confederates”) and others in genuine historical yearning (like the so-called “Willie Lynch letter”). We can do better to meet this demand, and we should.

If we think many Americans know little about slavery and the Civil War, they know even less about the period that followed it. Scholars of the postwar period are well positioned to fill historical gaps on the transitions from slavery to freedom and African Americans’ underappreciated roles in the expanding world of rights.[40] Historians can make even more of their research accessible to public audiences; we should do this not only because there’s a demand but also because we still have intellectual debts that need to be paid.

Many of the earliest black historians and historical writers took it for granted that their work should be accessible to large audiences.[41] They came from the people or often wrote for them, understanding history’s power to enlighten and empower. From wherever we hail, African Americanists have a duty to continue this work and not simply share our research with people outside the academy but produce more of it with them in mind.

Producing histories for public audiences can happen in a number of ways. Many of us already give talks in our local communities and around the country. Post–Civil War historians can continue this work, but our field and audiences would be better served if more of us did it.

More of us can share our expertise by serving as historical advisers on popular productions of the past. Stephanie Smallwood, Daina Ramey Berry, and others lent their insight to the History Channel’s reboot of Roots. Eric Foner and others served as consultants for the new film, Free State of Jones, based on Victoria Bynum’s research. Greg Downs and Kate Masur are working with the National Parks Service to develop better historical insight on Reconstruction.[42] Postwar African Americanists can do this work in film, museums, and historic sites, too.

Another way to approach this is through more digital history and public history projects. In 2015, Slate Magazine’s Academy launched a podcast titled The History of American Slavery that connected its subscribers to academic research using a structure that models our courses and excerpts from scholars’ books. Similar projects covering the postwar period would be beneficial.

Historians are using blogs like Quintard Taylor’s, Christopher Cameron’s Black Perspectives, and Heather Cox Richardson and Joshua Rothman’s We’re History as well as digital history projects to curate content for general audiences. They’re also writing for online networks and magazines. This material is consumed by large audiences (much larger than the people who purchase most of our books or download our articles) and indicates appreciation for historians’ findings and perspectives. We need more of this public work on African Americans in the age of freedom.

One problem we face is the sometimes-incomprehensible nature of what happened during Reconstruction. The dominant narrative of federal policies and fights over establishing new civil authority over the states, while important, can leave little room for other stories, especially those about people on the ground.[43] Despite many historians’ best efforts, only scraps of the histories we produce have trickled down to the popular masses. The Lost Cause narrative that Reconstruction was a disaster has dominated the national memory, largely because so few people understand what happened and maybe because of our penchant for rehashing historiographical debates. The apparent absence of sesquicentennial events to commemorate Reconstruction on a scale comparable to that of the war further signals a lack of appreciation for the era’s significance, and, for our purposes, especially for African Americans.

The National Parks Service is stepping up to address this historical gap. In 2015, they started inventorying sites and working with historians to do for Reconstruction what they’ve done for the Civil War. A memorialization of Reconstruction will hopefully help enlighten popular audiences about the era when Americans came closer to achieving a racially equal democracy than they had before. Historians need to help translate the era’s developments for broad audiences and center African Americans’ diverse roles in and experiences of Reconstruction. We need more narrative histories of African Americans in the whirlwinds of freedom.[44] Such panoramic texts can span geographic divides while covering a variety of subjects for African Americans across the nation and world.

Radical visions and methods are essential to paying our intellectual debt to Du Bois and others and our moral debt to those activists, individuals, and communities of the past and present who continue to struggle for black liberation. Today, Americans of African descent and their allies are rightfully insisting that Black Lives Matter. Historians know that Black History matters too. To help Americans confront antiblackness and perhaps finally fulfill Civil War–era African Americans’ visions of freedom, historians need to use the tools at their disposal to understand and present all the colors and patterns of African American life at this critical juncture in black history.

Doing this work requires pursuing the radical imagination and multidisciplinary model of scholarship Du Bois deployed. Historians need to attend to the full spectrum of African America to apprehend how black folk moved through the Reconstruction era. We need a greater commitment to projecting our insight to audiences well beyond our classrooms and our peers in the discipline. The question facing African Americanists and our Americanist allies is whether or not we are ready and willing to come through.


KIDADA E. WILLIAMS is associate professor of history at Wayne State University. She is the author of They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I (New York University Press, 2012) and is co-editor, with Chad Williams and Keisha N. Blain, of Charleston Syllabus: Readings on Race, Racism, and Racial Violence (University of Georgia Press, 2016).


I am deeply indebted to the reviewers, the editorial board of the Journal of the Civil War Era, Lisa Ze Winters, and Shannon King for coming through, supporting this essay and making precise suggestions for enhancing it.

[1] W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880 (New York: Russel & Russel, 1935).
[2] Thomas Holt discusses Du Bois’s archive and methodological approach in an enlightening piece in a special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly featuring Reconstruction experts’ commentary on the book. See “‘A Story of Ordinary Human Beings’: The Sources of Du Bois’s Historical Imagination in Black Reconstruction,” South Atlantic Quarterly 112 (Summer 2013): 419–35. George Washington Williams, A History of the Negro Race from 1619 to 1880: Negroes as Slaves, Soldiers, and as Citizens (N.p.: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1885); Carter G. Woodson, The Negro in Our History (Washington, D.C.: Associated Publishers, 1922).
[3] Subsequent critical interventions include John Hope Franklin, Reconstruction after the Civil War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961); Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988); Steven Hahn, A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South, from Slavery to the Great Migration (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003). The Freedmen and Southern Society Project ( and its researchers have excavated the processes of emancipation.
[4] Eric Foner, Freedom’s Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders during Reconstruction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993); Howard Rabinowitz, ed., Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982); Hugh Davis, “We Will Be Satisfied with Nothing Less”: The African American Struggle for Equal Rights in the North during Reconstruction (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2011); Thomas C. Holt, Black over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina during Reconstruction (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977); J. Morgan Kousser, The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974); Heather Cox Richardson, The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post–Civil War North (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001); Leslie Schwalm, Emancipation’s Diaspora: Race and Reconstruction in the Upper Midwest (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009); Quintard Taylor, In Search of Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528–1990 (New York: Norton, 1998).
[5] Nancy Bercaw, Gendered Freedoms: Race, Rights, and the Politics of Household in the Delta, 1861–1875 (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2003); Noralee Frankel, Freedom’s Women: Black Women and Families in Civil War Era Mississippi (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999); Leon Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (New York: Knopf, 1979); Susan Eva O’Donovan, Becoming Free in the Cotton South (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010); Willie Lee Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964); Leslie Schwalm, A Hard Fight for We: Women’s Transition from Slavery to Freedom in South Carolina (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997).
[6] Scholars researching emancipation have revealed African Americans as embracing what Elsa Barkley Brown has characterized as unique visions of freedom that both converged and diverged with those of the mainstream. Their visions did not require white subjugation; indeed, they often supported economic and political ventures that helped blacks and whites. Black people’s radical imagination, as Robin D. G. Kelley calls it, was grounded in histories of slavery and struggle for liberation. These diverse experiences led many to pursue what Hasan Jeffries calls “freedom rights,” a mix of civil and human rights. Elsa Barkley Brown, “To Catch a Vision of Freedom: Reconstructing Southern Black Women’s Political History, 1865–1880,” in African American Women and the Vote, 1837–1960, ed. Ann Gordon et al. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997), 66–99; Robin D. G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Boston: Beacon, 2002); Hasan Jeffries, “Conditions Unfavorable to the Rise of the Negro: The Pursuit of Freedom Rights before the Civil Rights Era,” in Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 7–38.
[7] Elsa Barkley Brown, “To Catch a Vision of Freedom,” and “Negotiating and Transforming the Public Sphere: African American Political Life in the Transition from Slavery to Freedom,” Public Culture 7, no. 1 (1994): 107–48; Foner, Reconstruction; Hahn, A Nation under Our Feet; Holt, Black Over White; Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Tera C. Hunter, To ’Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1997) and “Bound in Wedlock”: Marriage and Slavery in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, forthcoming). See also Gerald D. Jaynes, Branches without Roots: Genesis of the Black Working Class in the American South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).
[8] Reviewing recent scholarship on the Black Power movement and marking its fiftieth anniversary, Connolly argues that a black power method is a form of “insurgent scholarly politics” developed by Black Power activists, like Angela Davis and George Jackson, who “carried out the critical early work of archival reclamation and anti-racist theorization” as they devised radical histories of Black Americans. Their work and that of their intellectual descendants, which Du Bois and his peers were doing long before it became vogue, is “anti-racist, and, often, anti-liberal in its interpretive and archival practice.” Methodologically, a black power method “moves to destabilize or interrogate dominant white perspectives” in archival and government records and “in the very definition of what constitutes a credible source” to unearth the full complexity of African American life. Nathan D. B. Connolly, “A Black Power Method,”, June 15, 2016, Many scholars trained in African American history have been doing this work for some time, to be sure. We just need more of it.
[9] Sometimes these categories conceal as much as they reveal, leaving me to ask at conferences or reviewing people’s work—”Which blacks?” “Which black Virginians?” “Which black women?” Scholars with extensive field training get it; others don’t. Conversations with other scholars suggests this is not a problem limited to history.
[10] Jim Downs raised important questions about how physical disability undermined freedom in “The Continuation of Slavery: The Experience of Disabled Slaves during Emancipation” Disability Studies Quarterly 28 (Summer 2008): Other scholars have thrown additional light on this subject. See Bea H. Boster, African American Slavery and Disability: Bodies, Property, and Power in the Antebellum South 1800–1860 (New York: Routledge, 2013); Jenifer L. Barclay, “Mothering the ‘Useless’: Black Motherhood, Disability, and Slavery,” Women, Gender, and Families of Color 2 (Fall 2014): 115–40. At this stage, I think we need more work on emancipation. We also need more research on mental disabilities and illness. Jim Downs, Barbara Krauthamer, and Tiya Miles have raised key questions about the intersections of freedom for Afro-Native peoples. See Jim Downs, “‘The Other Civil War’: Emancipation and Identity in the Case of the Black Seminoles in the Rio Grande,” presented at the Society of Civil War Historians, June 3, 2016; Barbara Krauthamer, “Indian Territory and the Treaties of 1866: A Long History of Emancipation,” in The World the Civil War Made, ed. Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 226–48; Tiya Miles, “Tracing African American Life in Native American Spaces,” Session 1: “Who Is Black America?” 2016 Future of the African American Past conference, accessed May 24, 2016, more on intersectionality, see Kimberle Crenshaw “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43 (1991): 1241-1299 and on black multipositionality, see Earl Lewis, “To Turn as On a Pivot: Writing African Americans into a History of Overlapping Diasporas,” American Historical Review 100, no. 3 (1995), 782-84.
[11] See Heather Andrea Williams, Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012). I am suggesting that we need more attention to the mechanics, the details of these and other processes of emancipation. The details matter, as do their complexities and nuances. Combined, they help us to fully apprehend the challenges black people faced, which helps us make sense of their disappointments and triumphs.
[12] Black people received formal and informal education, and they acquired land and developed businesses. See Heather Andrea Williams, Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007). We know less about the processes by which these developments did or did not occur. Christopher Hager’s brilliant Word by Word: Emancipation and the Act of the Writing (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013) comes the closest to slowing down scholars’ tendency to rush past the details of emancipation. In being willing to see in new black writers’ scratched out phrases and apologies about penmanship or spelling the physical and emotional struggles of African Americans’ efforts to communicate by writing, Hager recovers a stunning and emotional history of freedom that merits replication.
[13] Ransom and Sutch and others have explored economic histories of emancipation. With a flourishing body of scholarship on the relationship between slavery and capitalism, scholarship on the links between emancipation and capitalism are likely to follow. Roger L. Ransom and Richard Sutch, One Kind of Freedom: The Economic Consequences of Emancipation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). But greater attention to the processes of economic emancipation is needed to understand who fell victim to the economy or racist dispossession and who struck out boldly and failed. Anyone looking to produce easy histories will be disappointed, but some of the best histories are the complicated, messy ones.
[14] Chandra Manning writes that on May 23, 2011, Thavolia Glymph delivered a talk on representing histories of hurt, titled “Preserving and Interpreting Historic Places Associated with Civil War–Era Freedom Seekers.” Chandra Manning, “Working for Citizenship in Civil War Contraband Camps,” Journal of the Civil War Era 4 (June 2014): 191, 203n86.
[15] Anne Rothe characterizes popular culture / talk show–driven discourse surrounding trauma—where everyone suffers trauma injury and can be healed by sharing their stories—as trauma kitsch and trauma camp, which should be avoided, especially if one familiarizes oneself with the scholarship on trauma. Popular Trauma Culture: Selling the Pain of Others in the Mass Media (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2011), 42–48, 70–82.
[16] The scholarship on the national collective or historical memory of African American history is quite vibrant. However, what I am suggesting here is much more attention to African Americans’ historical consciousness surrounding the Civil War’s aftermaths, à la the texts in Genevieve Fabre and Robert O’Meally, ed. History and Memory in African-American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994). David Blight, in American Oracle, used James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison’s writings to reveal African Americans’ efforts to confront historical amnesia marking the Civil War’s centennial amid the civil rights movement. More research is needed to understand how African Americans’ individual and collective memories or understandings of the postwar period developed and possibly changed over time, especially in the face of Lost Cause propaganda. See American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011) 183–50, 251–60.
[17] This work is being done, but it’s not universal. Like most historical sources, these records aren’t without problems, but they do provide some additional basic information that could be useful to well-trained historians who can navigate the limitations and pitfalls.
[18] Karla F. C. Holloway, Private Bodies, Public Texts: Race, Gender, and a Cultural Bioethics (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2011), 107.
[19] I take this discussion of the usefulness of quotidiana, the archival minutiae scholars typically discard when conducting their research but would be useful for excavating African Americans’ emotions and rich interiority from David Kazanjian. See his “Scenes of Speculation,” Social Text 125 (December 2015): 78. This discussion of the above and below views, in part from Maria Lugones, is quoted in Yomaira C. Figueroa, “Faithful Witnesses as Practice: Decolonial Readings of Shadows of Your Black Memory and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” Hypathia 30 (Fall 2015): 644. The lesson of fiction as a possible source from an “alternative archive” comes from Jennifer Harford Vargas, “Novel Testimony: Alternative Archives in Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones,” Callaloo 37, no. 5 (Fall 2014): 1162–80.
[20] Tiya Miles took combining a literary and historical imagination to a new level in her brilliant novel The Cherokee Rose: A Novel of Ghosts and Gardens (Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 2015). Miles notes that her inspiration came from the many archival silences she encountered in her research on Native American slaveholding. Many historians rejected the idea that she could or should attempt to fill the silences in her research. Understanding the discipline’s boundaries but unable to let go the questions about her subjects’ lives, Miles decided to blend historical fact with fiction and create a world where she could fill the gaps in a satisfactory way. Figueroa uses Maria Lugones’s concept of “faithful witnessing,” an act of aligning one’s self with subjugated peoples for understanding events and histories. Figueroa considers the ways literary scholars tap their imaginations to recreate the past, using folktales, rumors, and everyday people’s memories to challenge the coloniality of institutionally approved archival sources. See “Faithful Witnesses as Practice.”
[21] Some of this work is being done, but more historians need to engage it independently or in conjunction with cultural theorists. See Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer, Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012) and Maurice O. Wallace and Shawn Michelle Smith, Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2012). Nell Painter’s impressive assembly of art in Creating Black Americans is a case in point of the value of examining artistic creations to interpret historical meaning. See Creating Black Americans: African American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
[22] See Jennifer L. Morgan, Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004); Stephanie Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). Stephanie Camp and Ed Baptist show the effective and rewarding development of enriching histories by concentrating on the commonality of accounts and the knowledge gained by examining the differences. See Camp, “Pleasures of Resistance: Enslaved Women and Body Politics in the Plantation South, 1830–1861,” Journal of Southern History 68 (August 2002): 533–72 and Closer to Freedom, and Baptist, “‘Stol and Fetched Here’: Enslaved Migration, Ex-Slave Narratives, and Vernacular History” in New Studies in the History of American Slavery, ed. Edward E. Baptist and Stephanie Camp (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006), 243–74, and The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014) Dylan Penningroth, The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003) and Tiya Miles, The Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005) brought similar light. Hannah Rosen, in Terror in the Heart of Freedom: Citizenship, Sexual Violence, and the Meaning of Race in the Postemancipation South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009); Carole Emberton, in Beyond Redemption: Race, Violence, and the American South after the Civil War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013); and Elaine Frantz Parsons, in Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), have done similar work for Reconstruction violence.
[23] Kali N. Gross, Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso: A Tale of Race, Sex, and Violence in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 3.
[24] Painter discussed the “shadow narrative” at Session 8: African American History is American History of the 2016 Future of the African American Past conference, May 21, 2016, Painter was responding in part to an issue raised in Session 2: Slavery and Freedom (May 20, 2016), on the ways the shadow of white supremacy shapes some historians’ tendency to avoid addressing in our teaching or writing enslaved people joking, laughing, and loving, out of fear of providing fodder for the “happy slave” enthusiasts. She mentioned the ways white supremacy silences us, and she argued for us to fight it. I see this shadow as lingering over our hesitancy to tackle a range of other issues too, which informs the arguments I make here. We should not ignore the white supremacist elephant in the room, to be sure. But I think it’s worth considering how we might continue to enrich the field if we were not operating from a position of fear. White supremacists will twist anything to their logic. Mindfulness of that reality can inform a careful but courageous approach; see Shane White, “Freedom’s First Con: African Americans and Changing Notes in Antebellum New York City,” Journal of the Early Republic 34 (Fall 2014): 385–409, and “The Gold Diggers of 1833: African American Dreams, Fortune-Telling, Treasure Seeking, and Policy in Antebellum New York City,” Journal of Social History 47 (Spring 2014): 673–95; and Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street’s First Black Millionaire (New York: St. Martin’s, 2015). Increasingly, more scholars are illuminating African Americans’ efforts to confront white supremacy and enjoy their freedom outside the Deep South. See, for example, Kate Masur, An Example for All The Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, D.C. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012); Desmond King and Stephen Tuck, “De-Centering the South: America’s Nationwide White Supremacist Order after Reconstruction,” Past and Present 194 (February 2007): 213–53; Stephen D. Kantrowitz, More Than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829–1889 (New York: Penguin, 2013); Stacey L. Smith, Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 206–36.
[25] Kali Gross, “Hannah Mary Tabbs: A Black Murderess in Racist 1800s U.S.,” BBC News Magazine, February 22, 2016,
[26] Michele Mitchell focuses on gender and sexuality, but I think these silences extend to other issues, particularly surrounding black people’s social or criminal behavior. See “Silences Broken, Silences Kept: Gender and Sexuality in African American History,” Gender and History 11, no. 3 (1999): 433–44.
[27] Gross is a pioneer in this regard, but, increasingly, she is not alone. Additional work exists and is forthcoming for later periods, like Jeffrey Adler’s “‘I Wouldn’t Be No Woman if I Wouldn’t Hit Him’: Race, Patriarchy, and Spousal Homicide in New Orleans, 1924–1945,” Journal of Women’s History 27 (Fall 2015): 14–36; and Sowandé Mustakeem, “‘Armed with a Knife in Her Bosom’: Gender, Violence, and the Consequence of Rage in the Late Nineteenth Century,” Journal of African American History 100, no. 3 (2015): 385–405. More of this work is needed for the first decade of emancipation, and not just in the North. Talitha LeFlouria’s Chained in Silence: Black Women in Convict Labor in the New South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015) and Sarah Haley’s No Mercy Here: Gender Punishment and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016) look at African Americans becoming ensnared in the postbellum carceral state and the penal state’s role in Jim Crow. Much of the scholarship appearing during or close to Reconstruction still considers crimes blacks were accused of committing against white people or white property or focuses on their periods of incarceration. What I am suggesting here is that we need more analysis of the crimes committed both by and against black people and their property across the nation during Reconstruction. As enthusiastic as I am about impressive research on women in the carceral state, when I read it, I can’t help but think about the black victims of their alleged and actual crimes. It doesn’t have to be an either/or situation unless we make it one; counternarratives matching the brilliance of these new histories elevate the field.
[28] Understand, I recognize the significance of the recovery work on Black Reconstruction. A desire to know even more than we do informs the arguments I am making in this essay. Historians have, in fact, made progress on this front. Hannah Rosen’s work in Terror in the Heart of Freedom cast a bright light on the ways sexual violence was critical to the work of Redemption and how it resonated in African American victims’ lives.
[29] Numerous scholars have called for “troubling” archival sources and provided blueprints for doing it. Nell Irvin Painter, Soul Murder and Slavery (Waco, Tex.: Markham Press Fund, Baylor University Press, 1995); Saidiya V. Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 26, no. 2 (2008): 1–14; Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon, 1995); Wendy Anne Warren, “‘The Cause of Her Grief’: The Rape of a Slave in Early New England,” Journal of American History 93 (March 2007): 1031–49; Marisa J. Fuentes, “Power and Historical Figuring: Rachael Pringle Polgreen’s Troubled Archive,” Gender and History 22 (November 2010): 564–84. Social Text 125 is a special issue titled “The Question of Recovery: Slavery, Freedom, and the Archive” (December 2015), which presents compelling arguments for undertaking some of the work I am suggesting here. A roundtable with Thulani Davis, Martha Hodes, and David Kazanjian addresses many of the questions and challenges we face when confronting archives of scarcity, and each author makes a compelling case for related but different solutions. See “Archives and Methods in the Study of Slavery and Freedom,” 59–60; Thulani Davis, “Recovering Fugitive Dreams,” 61–67; Martha Hodes, “Lincoln’s Black Mourners: Submerged Voices, Everyday Life, and the Question of Storytelling,” 68–76; David Kazanjian, “Scenes of Speculation,” 77–84. What I am suggesting is that more of us apply this insight to the postwar period. Stephanie Camp called for this kind of speculative work in her examination of enslaved women. See Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 3.
[30] Hodes, “Lincoln’s Black Mourners,” 70.
[31] This information is located in petitions and reports to Freedmen’s Bureau agents and Army personnel and later to the U.S. marshals who were stationed throughout the South. We can also find it in congressional hearings and legal and judicial proceedings. The challenge is that it is often fragmentary, but a commitment to connecting the pieces would yield invaluable insight. As we consider a history of black sensibilities or emotions above, we need to consider the emotional histories of both individual and communities that experienced similar emotionally significant events. See Barbara H. Rosenwein, “”Emotional Communities in the Early Middle Ages (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2006), esp. 842–45.
[32] See for example Jan Plamper, “The History of Emotions: An Interview with William Reddy, Barbara Rosenwein, and Peter Sterns,” History and Theory 49 (May 2010): 237–65; Barbara Rosenwein, “Worrying about Emotions in History,” American Historical Review 107, no. 3 (2002): 821–45; Rob Boddice, “The Affective Turn: Historicizing the Emotions,” in Psychology and History: Interdisciplinary Explorations, eds. Christian Tileagă and Jovan Byford (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 147–65. Martha Hodes’s work in Mourning Lincoln serves as an example of historians exploring emotions. A critical part of Hodes’s methodology is making a point to interpret the complex terrain of African Americans’ reactions to Lincoln’s assassination. Hodes discusses her methodological approach in “Lincoln’s Black Mourners,” but also see Mourning Lincoln (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 275–78.
[33] William Reddy has defined emotives as an emotional expression, “an attempt to call up what is expressed; it is an attempt to feel what one says one feels.” Reddy, quoted in Plamper, “History of Emotions,” 240. For a larger discussion of emotives, see William Reddy, The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001), 96–110. My use of the plural here for interiorities is intentional. Emotions are both highly subjective and situational, so any historical excavation of them should take that into consideration. They should also consider the diversity of African Americans as a group and their emotive similarities to and differences from the mainstream.
[34] Ibid.
[35] Leslie Schwalm, “Surviving Wartime Emancipation: African Americans and the Cost of the Civil War,” Journal of the American Society of Law, Medicine, and Ethics 39, no. 1 (2011): 21–27; Jim Downs, Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); Thavolia Glymph, “African American Women Refugees,” CSPAN3: American History TV, October 18, 2013, Veena Das, Arthur Kleinman, and Margaret Lock write that violence, especially that involving catastrophic events latches itself onto survivors, changing who they are and how they operate in the world. See Social Suffering (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997). Here, I am suggesting that we revisit these and other sources and look for ways to disinter the effects of the human or even environmental tragedies that befell African Americans.
[36] When scholars find evidence of black people’s long-term suffering or belief that they might have faced acute hardship, we need to dig deeper than we often do to consider the implications and maybe looking for the person in other historical records to see what might have become of them.
[37] Kelley, Freedom Dreams; Carole Emberton, “Unwriting the Freedom Narrative: A Review Essay,” Journal of Southern History 82 (May 2016): 377–94. I bring up African Americans’ varied feelings about the social, material, and political narrowing of freedom because, whereas I think it is important that we challenge the freedom narrative, we should not lose sight of the fact that legal freedom not only happened, it also mattered a great deal to African Americans. Civil War–era blacks’ individual and collective actions from 1861 forward point to their varied understandings of liberty’s possibilities and significance. Despite freedom’s paradoxical nature, few sources indicate ex-slaves and their descendants preferred bondage. Whether it is the movements to dismantle Jim Crow or against today’s carceral state and police and vigilante killings of unarmed black people, the freedom struggle, in its infinite forms, is a testament to how African Americans have understood and acted out their irreconcilable strivings for liberation.
[38] Rosen, Terror in the Heart of Freedom, 77–78, 79–80, especially. Williams, Help Me to Find My People. See also LeFlouria, Chained in Silence.
[39] See Chad Williams, Kidada E. Williams, and Keisha N. Blain, eds. Charleston Syllabus: Readings on Race, Racism, and Racial Violence (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016).
[40] Laura F. Edwards, “Status without Rights: African Americans and the Tangled History of Law and Governance in the Nineteenth-Century U.S. South,” American Historical Review 112 (April 2007): 365–93; Amy Dru Stanley, “Instead of Waiting for the Thirteenth Amendment: The War Power, Slave Marriage, and Inviolate Human Rights,” The American Historical Review 115 (June 2010): 732–65 and “Slave Emancipation and the Revolutionizing of Human Rights,” in Downs and Masur, World the Civil War Made, 269–303.
[41] See for example, John Ernest, Liberation Historiography: African American Writers and the Challenge of History, 1794–1861 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004); Stephen G. Hall, A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in the Nineteenth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).
[42] “‘Roots,’ Remade for a New Era,” New York Times, May 18, 2016, and “Taking Another Look at the Reconstruction Era,” New York Times, August 24, 2015
[43] Gregory P. Downs, Kate Masur, and a group of researchers brought together by the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center have tried to reenvision what we call “Reconstruction” by shifting toward a new critical framework that encompasses the many developments taking shape in what they call the “postwar era.” See Downs and Masur, The World the Civil War Made. The jury is still out on whether or not Reconstruction historians are ready to move beyond rehashing historiographical debates and toward developing broader understandings of the post–Civil War world and communicating that to larger audiences. If they are not, it is incumbent on African Americanists to remain engaged with the scholarship focused on federal or state policy and politics, especially in relation to black people, but not be limited by it. Shifting some of the intellectual production away from historiography and politics and policy, or maintaining it in the background, is critical if we are going to continue unearthing the vast, diverse history of post–Civil War African America. Understand, I’m not advocating that scholars ignore these topics. But I do think that maintaining a radical vision means not being constrained by them.
[44] Ira Berlin’s The Long Emancipation: The Demise of Slavery in the United States (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015) is a clear example of the accessible and synthetic text needed, but he focuses on the long history of freedom and stops shortly after emancipation.

2 Replies to “Maintaining a Radical Vision of African Americans in the Age of Freedom”

  1. It is so nice to read of the Civil War without the obsession with “‘lines and arrows” and get the heart of the matter……

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