Prophets of Protest: Reconsidering the History of American Abolitionism
New York / London: New Press, 2006.
Reviewed by David Waterman
Michael Fellman’s Forward to Prophets of Protest highlights the continuing interest in abolitionist research a full generation after his 1979 collection, Antislavery Reconsidered, especially the delicate articulation between “moral judgment and dispassionate research” [ix]. Prophets of Protest sets out to recast abolitionist history as interconnected and interracial, including some of the more popular expressions of political action, such as parades, poetry and cinema. This rich collection of essays is organized around four themes: Revisions; Origins; Revolutions; and Representations, presenting new scholarship and new social contexts which contribute to our evolving view of the United States’ political, social and cultural history.
Chapter One of the “Revision” section begins with a discussion of the intellectual climate of the times, “’Truth Systematised’: The Changing Debate Over Slavery and Abolition, 1761-1916,” by Robert P. Forbes. African slavery in America needed no defense, as the economic argument of slavery went a long way in supporting capitalism, and if economics weren’t enough, peoples’ views about the natural order of things—white superiority, Manifest Destiny—were backed up by the authority of religion (an important element of political thought), or by the example of the founding fathers, themselves slaveholders. Add to this list the pseudoscience of social Darwinism, including phrenology and early IQ testing, all of which is qualified as “willed ignorance masquerading as insight,” and the author is able to conclude, rightly, that “racism [. . .] was the creation of intellectuals” . Race as a category was created alongside the social sciences which studied it, hence the discourse is already contaminated, rendering the tools suspect in themselves. Chapter Two, “Coming of Age: The Historiography of Black Abolitionism,” by Manish Sinha, asks the reader to step outside the stereotype of American abolitionists as “bourgeois reformers burdened by racial paternalism”  in order to consider the contributions of African Americans and women to the struggle for racial equality. The mid-1800s work of William Cooper Nell, William Wells Brown, Martin Delany and Hosea Easton all succeed, according to Sinha, in not only leaving a detailed historical record of black abolitionism, but also in “deconstructing racial thought and pseudoscientific racism in early America” . Several other important figures are treated, up to Benjamin Quarles’s 1969 Black Abolitionists, while the author regrets the seeming lack of impact made by new historical scholarship in the field .
Part Two, “Origins,” begins with T. K. Hunter’s “Geographies of Liberty: A Brief Look at Two Cases.” Hunter’s central question is “Where is the law?” when, for example, in 1771 the slave James Somerset traveled from Boston to London with his master, Charles Stuart. Liberty, the court ruled, depends on geography, and since Somerset was no longer on American but British soil, he was freed . A similar case, heard in 1836, examined the status of a slave girl named Med, living now in the free state of Massachusetts with her master, and the courts once again decided that even within the same country, the laws of the state of residence (Massachusetts) take precedence over the laws where the slave was purchased (Louisiana)—Med also was freed . These two cases are examined in the larger context of the Missouri Compromise and the complexities of new states entering the Union with regard to their admission as slave, or free, states. Chapter Four is entitled “’A Chosen Generation:’ Black Founders and Early America,” and deals with the importance of community and the abolitionists demand not only for freedom, but for equality as American citizens. Printed protest and the foundation of schools and churches structured the feeling of black community, and, according to Richard S. Newman, “created mental maps for their brethren, ideas about abolitionism, black civic participation and equal rights that helped guide early black activism’” . Julie Winch’s chapter follows, entitled “’Onward, Onward, is Indeed the Watchword:’ James Forten’s Reflections on Revolutions and Liberty,” a history of the activist James Forten, a veteran of the Revolutionary War who very quickly became disillusioned with the Revolution’s promise of freedom and equality for all. Forten fought a “second revolution,” this one peaceful, as president of the American Moral Reform Society, advocating “antislavery, women’s rights, education, temperance, pacifism, and the relief of poverty” . In Chapter Six, Sandra Sandiford Young looks at the question of black emigration in “John Brown Russwurm’s Dilemma: Citizenship or Emigration?” Russwurm, a mulatto who was raised in comfortable surroundings, would come to argue that emigration to Liberia was the best hope for blacks in their quest for equality, a point of view not shared by many other blacks who preferred to stay in America and fight for their rights as citizens. Those opposed to African emigration would argue that recolonization would simply eliminate free blacks from the community, hence ultimately supporting slavery. Russwurm never ceded to the opposition, and moved to Monrovia, becoming immensely successful, while most blacks were in America to stay. Chapter Seven, “’To Plead Our Own Cause’: Black Print Culture and the Origins of American Abolitionism,” by Timothy Patrick McCarthy, deals with the construction of an African American memory based on the printed word, with special emphasis on Freedom’s Journal, first published in 1827. An important element in the move from an oral tradition to “traditions of radical pamphleteering and political and literary dissent practiced by revolutionaries” , Freedom’s Journal became an organ of debate and education within the African American community, with the overt goal of encouraging blacks to stay in America and stand their ground. When the Journal closed after two years, David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World came in its wake, unveiling the contradictions of American society, and earning him the wrath, including death threats, of slave-owners.
Part Three, “Revolutions,” starts with Karl Gridley’s examination of militant abolitionism in the person of John Brown, entitled “’Willing to Die for the Cause of Freedom in Kansas’: Free State Emigration, John Brown, and the Rise of Militant Abolitionism in the Kansas Territory.” “Bleeding Kansas” becomes the focal point which brought anti-slavery to the fighting point, a guerrilla violence which “had the ability to galvanize [. . .] radical political and social movements in their defining moments of crisis” , with of course John Brown at the center, and finally the entry, in January 1861, of Kansas into the Union as a free state. Chapter Nine continues with “Regional Black Involvement in John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry,” by Hannah Geffert (with Jean Libby), and the thesis that, far from received wisdom about the raid, many blacks were active participants, some dying in battle that day. Geffert goes on to insist that the raid be considered within the larger context of black involvement in the fight for their liberation .
Part Four, “Representations,” begins with “A Common Nature, A United Destiny: African American Responses to Racial Science from the Revolution to the Civil War,” by Patrick Rael, which examines the five possible reactions to the “racial science” of the day: concession; living-proof refutation; arguments from history; the idea of racial genius; and negative environmentalism , ways for blacks to refute scientific racism by appropriating the dominant discourse. In Chapter Eleven, Julie Roy Jeffrey looks at celebrations as a means of political activism, in “’No Occurrence in Human History Is More Deserving of Commemoration Than This’: Abolitionist Celebrations of Freedom.” Created as an alternative to standard July 4th celebrations, which celebrated independence and freedom while ignoring those Americans in bondage, the August 1st holiday commemorated the 1834 abolition of slavery in the British West Indies. Such celebrations were, however, the subject of much debate in the black community; while parties and music lured outside support, there was also opposition to lavish ostentation and bacchanalian revelry, very quickly criticized by the white community as well. Poetry as a political tool is the subject of Dickson D. Bruce Jr’s chapter, “Print Culture and the Antislavery Community: The Poetry of Abolitionism, 1831-1860.” Poetry builds community by defining the character of a nation, by creating martyrs and heroes, and the abolitionist literary canon is no exception. Special mention is reserved for the rhetorical unveiling of hypocrisy, in the parody of patriotic verse, which is also “a rhetoric of community, stressing common and distinctive knowledge and perceptions” . In Chapter Thirteen, Augusta Rohrbach presents the marketing acumen of two important writers: “Profits of Protest: The Market Strategies of Sojourner Truth and Louisa May Alcott,” women who managed to associate a sense of civic duty with the necessity of earning a living. While Alcott often used a pen-name when writing against social norms, Truth posed as one of “them,” portrait and all, and both were able to use “double vision” as a means of social critique . John Stauffer continues along pictorial lines, with “Creating an Image in Black”: The Power of Abolition Pictures,” a sort of political advertising for the abolitionist cause. With the rise of visual culture, Frederick Douglass became the image of the black man, and defended representational painting and photography as accurate depictions of reality , while Ellison, for example, would later refuse visibility as a form of resistance . Even Sojourner Truth, Stauffer reminds us, was more famous from her portraits than from her actual presence at abolitionist meetings . Prophets of Protest closes with a final chapter dedicated to the cinema, “Abolitionists in American Cinema: From The Birth of a Nation to Amistad,” by Casey King, which also examines such films as Souls at Sea, Santa Fe Trail, and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. King’s general thesis is that Hollywood cannot be accused of encouraging radical reform, either by the remarkable absence of abolitionist films or by the films which have been produced. The most striking example given is the recent Spielberg film Amistad, which King reminds us is an artifact of “reinventing the past to serve the requirements of our present national senses of self,” in this case a film which claims historical accuracy through the creation of a fictional character .
Prophets of Protest manages to stay focused while engaging a wide range of viewpoints, and should benefit from a wide readership as a result. Although directed most specifically to historians, students of cultural studies, women’s studies or political science will find this detailed and thorough collection well worth their time, as will anyone interested in the literature of protest and social critique. The triumph of Prophets of Protest is best summarized by Martin Duberman in the Afterword: “The great achievement of this volume is that we are finally able to hear many more of the voices, and to appreciate far more profoundly the significance of their contributions to the ongoing struggle for a decent society.”