Thursday, February 20, 2020

Alejandro de la Fuente & Ariela J. Gross's "Becoming Free, Becoming Black"

Alejandro de la Fuente is the Robert Woods Bliss Professor of Latin American History and Economics, Professor of African and African American Studies, and the Director of the Afro-Latin American Research Institute at Harvard University.

Ariela J. Gross is the John B. and Alice R. Sharp Professor of Law and History and the Co-Director of the Center for Law, History, and Culture at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law.

They applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, Becoming Free, Becoming Black: Race, Freedom, and the Law in Cuba, Virginia, and Louisiana, and reported the following:
Page 99 of our book describes enslaved Virginians’ lawsuits for freedom based on claims of illegal importation, in the last two decades of the eighteenth century and the first decade of the nineteenth. It describes the way people trying to become free used a law that was never intended for that purpose. Legislators had banned importation of slaves into Virginia as a way to keep prices in the Richmond market high, but because the penalty for illegal importation was emancipation, an enslaved person could sue for freedom claiming she had been illegally brought in from Maryland or elsewhere. Page 99 also discusses examples of people using the threat of a lawsuit to bring an owner to the bargaining table, so that they could purchase their freedom. By 1810, because of these and other claims for freedom, the population of free people of color in Virginia had grown significantly.

The page is quite representative of the book, which tells the story of enslaved and free people of color who took advantage of openings in the law and overcame extraordinary obstacles to claim freedom for themselves and their families – working overtime, finding lawyers, traveling great distances. Their claims and demands helped produce legal understandings, meanings, expectations, practices. In other words, what we see as something external—“the law”—owes much to the actions of the enslaved. So the ban on illegal importation became a lever for people of color to expand the possibilities of freedom. And free people of color were important because they challenged the equation of blackness with enslavement, and whiteness with freedom.

The question we ask in the book is: why is it that in all three of these places, colonists from Spain, Britain, France all begin by putting into place in the law distinctions based on race, building race into law, equating African descent with degradation and slave status – in fact, even earlier in Havana than in New Orleans or in Virginia … but by 1860, they look totally different -- a free person of color in Havana could be part of public life, but in Louisiana or Virginia, was excluded from public life. Why did citizenship become so tied to whiteness in Louisiana and Virginia, but not in Cuba? Our answer is that the law of freedom determined these different regimes of race. The story begins with legal traditions, and in particular the fact that the right to become free was never limited in Cuba, but the book also shows how important were the initiatives of enslaved people themselves. And we show that the politics of white men’s democracy in the American republic, where slaveholders had to appeal to nonslaveholding white people, made the position of free people of color especially precarious, so that citizenship became tied to whiteness in the law in a way it doesn’t in Cuba. We identify the age of Revolution as a key moment in this divergence, but not in the way you might expect – while in some ways, it was a moment in which freedom was expanding all over the Americas, key differences between Cuba and the U.S. were already developing.
Learn more about Becoming Free, Becoming Black at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue