to Book Reviews
Back to Cercles
Stories of Freedom in Black New York
Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2002.
$27.95, 225 pages, ISBN 0-674-00893-6.
University of Nottingham
Shane White has produced an extraordinary work on the race relations and
tensions between the white and black inhabitants of New York City during the
1830s. His study focuses on the aftermath of the abolition of slavery in the
north, although slavery still remained an institution in the south. For many
blacks, it was their first glimpse of freedom. White captures their efforts to
create a black community and form a sense of black consciousness within New York.
The overall theme throughout the book is the birth of black experience and how
New York City dealt with new black freedom. White creates a candid picture of
the city through meticulous research, and provides a thorough view of the era
from both black and white perspectives. By doing so, he objectively portrays
how the city reacted to the emerging black urban culture.
Newly found black freedom transformed race relations as African Americans tried
to establish a black cultural identity in the midst of stark white resentment.
While the era was shadowed by racial and cultural tensions, White successfully
demonstrates how each group was also curious of the others cultural habits,
and in some instances, imitated aspects of the other race. This imitating,
or borrowing of culture, often helped blacks form the basis of their
cultural identity. They gave a unique black approach to white cultural trends.
Considerable amount of copying or imitating white
American practices was in effect, as blacks took from what they found around
them in order to restructure their lives now that they were free (196).
when whites would imitate black habits, it was usually done in
a mocking or degrading manor, which served to further separate
major distinctions between whiteness and blackness. White acknowledges
that the white societys creation of an otherness with
regards to blacks directly resulted from the fear that blacks were
becoming too white with
regards to their freedoms and rights.
This book uses the emergence of the black theatre (the African Company)
as its prime example of black efforts for a cultural community. The decision
the black theatre and actor James Hewlett as the centre of reference for
the book has great significance. Acting and theatre were white institutions
the time, and the formation of the black theatre drew great criticisms.
was startled that African Americans had the audacity to enter an exclusively
white institution and to re-enact Shakespearean plays with black actors,
(the thought of an African American Othello was unprecedented at the time).
author explains that the theatre provided a chance for blacks to test the limits
of their new-won freedom (67). It was a way to enter a white institution
and add to it a black perspective. Throughout the book, White uses black theatre
and the reaction to it from white critics, to parallel the overall racial tensions
in the era, which at times drew differing responses. Hewlett would receive praise
for many of his performances from white theatre critics and white audiences,
thus symbolising temporary acceptance by whites. Ironically, Hewletts
gifted acting career would come to a halt in the 1830s with the increase of
portraying black characters. The fact that Hewlett was not given the opportunity
to play the role of a black character suggests the frailty of his acceptance
by white audiences.
White showcases the black theatre as a sign of black success, and highlights
other aspects of the new black urban culture, nevertheless the reader is
aware that black successes were minimal in comparison to black oppression
in the city.
For example, poor standards of living included undesirable housing options
at expensive prices and limited job opportunities. This was combined with
racial slurs and threat of being kidnapped to be sold as a slave in the
south. As African Americans became more defiant, claiming the right to
new freedom, the reader is never left in doubt about how the growth of
for equality only drew greater white ridicule and rejection. The author
emphasises that white New Yorkers simply showed little recognition of black
Racism was both overt and institutionalised, and in many ways racism grew
abolition of slavery in the North.
White points out that the abolition of slavery in the North did little
to ease racial tensions in New York City.
whites probably unthinkingly assumed that things would go on much
as before, or just hoped that blacks
would quietly go away. They
mistaken. African New Yorkers became a loud and unavoidable presence,
assertively enacting on the citys streets and its places of entertainment
their own version of what freedom meant (185).
example of African American involvement in theatre is representative
of the black experience.
It showcased both differences between black
and white cultures
as well as showing how blacks were nevertheless adapting to American
entirely novel sight of African American actors declaiming the
words of Shakespeare on stage demonstrated that, regardless
of the derision
scornful whites would heap on them, they too were part of American
culture, even while their distinctiveness remained obvious for
all to see and hear
reader is left wondering if much of this laughter simply confirmed
to whites that they were still superior than the
the black performances.
The story is a fascinating and easy read, and White succeeds
in keeping the reader turning pages with the use of first-hand
accounts of black
These accounts allow the reader a greater feel for the era,
which for many would be an unknown subject. The only thing
is illustrations, both
of the African
theatre and of the actors. The reader is left to his own devices
picture black plays and other forms of social recreation, such
as black evening
balls and dances.
Pictures of black and white neighbourhoods may have been useful
too, to highlight the differences between races social classes.
This book is highly recommended. Particularly for scholars
and students whose interests include race, cultural studies,
the book is a
must read. For others, the vibrant tales and personal accounts,
(which are often
sometimes only out of shame for white ignorance of the time), combined with
White's relaxed writing style, effectively erase any misgivings non-historians
have, fearing a dull stereotypical history book. White does not disappoint
and presents an enjoyable read from cover to cover.
All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever
purpose is permitted without the permission of the
copyright owner. Please contact us before using any
material on this website.