How to Read about Slavery


For the last month I have been deep in the belly of studying for comprehensive exams. It has been rewarding, infuriating, and educational all at the same time. I wanted to post a quick blog today about something I have been studying. One of my exam topics is abolitionism. The many books I have examined so far tend to cover much of the same ground: William Lloyd Garrison, the “immediatists,” the Liberty Party, Frederick Douglass, etc. Often many of the books will examine the numerous, Northern, white abolitionists who were most vocal in the 1830s-1860s. While this is great to read about and shows the strategies, shifts, and divergent beliefs on slavery, it tends to overlook the real issue: the plight and suffering of blacks in the South. 

Enter the book I am reading today (pictured above), Prophets of Protest: Reconsidering the History of American Abolitionism (New York: New Press, 2006). It’s a multi-author work, which the editors describe as follows: “Black protest within the United States was one of the most important factors in terms of recruiting whites to abolitionism” (p. xix). I have only gone through the first four essays and have had more visceral reactions to these short essays than I have in reading several full books on the subject. One such reaction came from a particular essay by T.K. Hunter which describes two plights of slaves who went with their masters to free lands (one to England and one to Massachusetts), and how the slaves wanted to be considered free since the places they were in were free. The essay examines law principles and how liberty functions with geography (a great read, really), but my reaction came from its description of how these people were accompanying their masters on these trips and wanted to seize the opportunity to be free. This shows me that their desire for freedom was ever before them and something for which they deeply longed. Even recounting this essay for this blog saddens me. 

This brings me to my point and the title of this post: how we should read these accounts/ works. I feel that all too often I read about the abolitionists in the North with a callous distance (e.g. “another book about white men arguing over whether or not they should vote”). When books like Prophets of Protest come along, we are greeted with a fresh, confrontational work that presents us with direct accounts of black men and women protesting the institution of slavery and clamoring for racial equality (a benefit usually denied them by their abolitionist brethren and sistren) in addition to the abolition of slavery. I would ultimately argue that one of the best ways to read about slavery is to engage accounts of those who were oppressed and who continued to endure and fight for freedom, not simply the more oft-cited William Lloyd Garrison-type white abolitionist.

By allowing ourselves to be confronted with the actual harsh realities of slavery of the 1800s, including how the abolitionists continued to practice racial segregation even after the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, we should feel uneasy and unsettled. I would offer this closing remark: In reading about slavery, abolitionism, and emancipation, if you aren’t unsettled or upset by it, you aren’t reading a full account of it. 

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