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Stories of Freedom in Black New York
Shane White
Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2002.
$27.95, 225 pages, ISBN 0-674-00893-6.

David McBride
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 1820s and 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 other’s 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.

A 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).

Conversely, when whites would imitate black habits, it was usually done in a mocking or degrading manor, which served to further separate the races by drawing major distinctions between whiteness and blackness. White acknowledges that the white society’s 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 to use the black theatre and actor James Hewlett as the centre of reference for the book has great significance. Acting and theatre were white institutions at the time, and the formation of the black theatre drew great criticisms. White society 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). The 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, Hewlett’s gifted acting career would come to a halt in the 1830s with the increase of white actors 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 the constant 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 enjoy their new freedom, the reader is never left in doubt about how the growth of black assertiveness for equality only drew greater white ridicule and rejection. The author emphasises that white New Yorkers simply showed little recognition of black culture. Racism was both overt and institutionalised, and in many ways racism grew after the 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.

Most whites probably unthinkingly assumed that things would go on much as before, or just hoped that blacks would quietly go away. They were completely mistaken. African New Yorkers became a loud and unavoidable presence, assertively enacting on the city’s streets and its places of entertainment their own version of what freedom meant (185).

The 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 society.

The entirely novel sight of African American actors declaiming the words of Shakespeare on stage demonstrated that, regardless of the derision and sneers 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 (71-72).

The reader is left wondering if much of this laughter simply confirmed to whites that they were still superior than the former slaves, even while they enjoyed 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 and white experiences. These accounts allow the reader a greater feel for the era, which for many would be an unknown subject. The only thing lacking is illustrations, both of the African theatre and of the actors. The reader is left to his own devices to 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, and U.S. history, the book is a must read. For others, the vibrant tales and personal accounts, (which are often humorous—although sometimes only out of shame for white ignorance of the time), combined with White's relaxed writing style, effectively erase any misgivings non-historians might have, fearing a dull stereotypical history book. White does not disappoint and presents an enjoyable read from cover to cover.

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