Did Being Black Mean Automatic Slave Status?
A just-released book unlocks the story of how enslaved and free people of color used legal remedies to claim freedom and citizenship for themselves and their families.
There’s a vast body of evidence which suggests that blackness has long been synonymous with slavery. This theme is the subject of a fascinating new book entitled “Becoming Black, Becoming Free,” by authors Alejandro de la Fuente and Ariela J. Gross.
Using three slave societies — Cuba, Virginia, and Louisiana for historical context, de la Fuente and Gross argue that the law of freedom — not slavery — was the true litmus test by which blackness should be viewed. It’s here where they offer a series of narratives documenting the status of free slaves along with their claims to racial identity based citizenship.
They argue that many of the prevailing laws during slavery created onerous strictures on the lives and institutions of free people of color leading to dividing lines between black and white. Over time this evolved into white only rights and the systematic degradation of black people.
Says Ariela Gross, the John B. & Alice R. Sharp Professor of Law & History at the University of Southern California and co-author of the book:
“I came to this project from a study of trials of racial identity in the United States, cases where courts were deciding whether someone was black, or white, or Indian, usually in order to determine what kind of rights they could have along with whether they would be considered free and have all the rights of citizens. I examined those trials in an attempt to see how race was created through law in the US.
She goes to say that, somewhat to her surprise, many people throughout US history lived in a sort of middle ground between black and white.
“One reason I was surprised is because the traditional story people often tell is that in Latin America, where there are lots of different gradations of racial identity. As a result people moved between racial categories. In the US, however, things are strictly black and white.”
These findings fueled her interest in thinking about race comparatively. But instead of. just examining different slave societies from a kind of broad, birds-eye view, she returned to her primary interest of looking at the records of trials along with the kind of on-the-ground encounters between ordinary people and legal institutions. She extended this research beyond the Americas.
“Alejandro had been doing the same kind of work, in Havana, looking at the ways enslaved and free people of color made claims on legal institutions, trying to gain freedom to better their situation as well as that of their families. So it made sense for us to talk about working together.”
“We started talking about writing a comparative history of law, race and slavery more than ten years ago, and we worked on it on and off for about ten years. We probably got going in earnest about six years ago. But there was a lot we were originally working on that never got into the book. This is because as we got into it, we came to realize that what we really needed to look at is not the law of slavery but the law of freedom. In other words, how did people who were enslaved become free, and how were their lives regulated once they became free?
de la Fuente, Gross’ collaborator, was born and grew up in Havana, Cuba, where he worked as a researcher at the Institute of History while coordinating a research group for the Attorney General of Cuba. He also taught legal history at the University of Havana between 1986 and 1990.
de la Fuente remarked that during those years both hope and tension existed in Cuba. “Many young intellectuals were trying (under the influence of Perestroika in the Soviet Union) to democratize the country’s cultural and political lives. In the early 1990s, many of them decided to leave after realizing that the government would not tolerate change.”
Thanks to a “Quincentenary of the Discovery of America” award by the Bank of Spain, Alejandro managed to leave Cuba and go to Europe in 1991. He completed a Ph.D. in History at the University of Pittsburgh, where he now teaches. He is a specialist in slavery, comparative race relations, and Cuban history.
Says de la Fuente:
“As Ariela mentions, by the time we met each other, back in 2002 or so, we had already been working on somewhat similar questions concerning slavery, race, and legal regimes across the Americas. Scholars of race and slavery in Latin America are always, by formation, comparativists. We are trained (perhaps mis-trained) to think about race and enslavement south of Rio Grande with the United States experience in mind. This is due in part to the fact that the scholarship concerning slavery and race in the United States has traditionally been more advanced than in Latin America.”
He says that there has also been a long intellectual tradition contrasting race and slavery in the two Americas, a tradition that goes back to the 19th century, if not before.
“I came from that tradition. At the same time, I also knew that serious comparative work of the sort we were interested in doing — histories grounded on the initiatives of Africans and their descendants, and on local struggles and archives — could only be done by joining forces. Even for the two of us, mastering sources across jurisdictions, in several languages, and for almost four centuries, was a daunting task.”
The Significance of “Becoming Free, Becoming Black”
Asked to offer a brief overview of the book and what they as its greatest contribution to the historical narrative around slavery, the authors had this to say:
“The main question we pose in the book is why is it that in all three of these places, colonists from Spain, Britain, and France all begin by putting into place legal distinctions based on race. This included building race into law while equating African descent with degradation and slave status.”
The authors note that a free person of color in Havana could be part of public life, but in Louisiana or Virginia, they were excluded:
“Why did citizenship become so tied to whiteness in Louisiana and Virginia, but not in Cuba? Why was there a movement to remove free people of color, to “send them back,” in the U.S., but not in Cuba?”
De la Fuente and Gross continue:
“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 possibility of becoming free was never prohibited in Cuba. In those Iberian traditions, manumission — that is, the right of a slaveowner to agree for a slave to become free — was not tied to legal efforts that sought to identify blackness with enslavement.”
“Iberia was home to large numbers of enslaved peoples of different origins and religious backgrounds. Paying ransom to liberate enslaved Christians and Muslims was a common practice that was not linked to race, leading to projects that developed in the Americas. But the book also highlights the initiatives enslaved people took in freeing themselves.”
Throughout the book, the authors 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. Therefore citizenship became tied to whiteness in the law in a way that it didn’t in Cuba.
de la Fuente and Gross continue:
“We identify the ‘Age of Revolution’ as a key moment in this divergence, but not in the way you might expect. Because 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.”
In terms of what surprised them the most in terms of their research leading up to the book, the authors had this to say:
“There were a number of surprises in the archives. For example, there were mentions in Virginia newspapers of free people of color petitioning to be declared “not a negro” in order to escape the worst discriminatory treatment under new state laws. In the state archives of the Library of Virginia, we found a handful of them. Often a person who up until then had been living free and undisturbed felt threatened enough to ask for a certificate stating that they were ‘not a negro,’ that they could carry with them and show to authorities or others who challenged their right to travel or to pursue their livelihood.”
“It was also chilling to find dozens of newspaper advertisements from free people of color seeking ‘lost free papers,’ the documents they needed to carry on their person at all times in order not to be kidnapped into slavery. But perhaps the biggest surprise was to realize that there was a foundational commonality: namely,in all three jurisdictions, local elites enshrined the association between blackness and enslavement in the law.”
The Practice of Manumission
“Manumission” according to the authors was a legal term tied to a slave owner’s right to give freedom to their slaves. While it was a right given to the slaveholder, not the slave, the latter often used it to negotiate, bargain, and even sue for freedom. In other words, the slaves would arrange to purchase themselves in installments. If and when an owner tried to back out, the slave would take him or her to court. So what the law conceived as a master prerogative — “to give” freedom — was in practice the outcome of the actions and aspirations of enslaved people.
The authors go on to note that some also sued for freedom based on a will, or on a claim of descent from a free woman, or living on free soil, or even having been imported illegally from another state. They took advantage of openings in the law and overcame extraordinary obstacles to claim freedom for themselves and their families — working overtime, finding lawyers, and even traveling great distances.
Says the authors:
What we see as something external — “the law” — owes much to the actions of the enslaved. And manumission is a prime example of that.”
“A lot of people don’t realize that there were substantial communities of free people of color under slavery. And in all three of the places we examined, these communities were large enough to challenge many white people’s conceptions of black people’s “proper place.” Thus free people of color were important because they challenged the notion of blackness with enslavement, and whiteness with freedom.”
“This is why slaveholding white Southerners organized a movement to “remove” freed slaves back to Africa, even if they had been born in the Southern states, and to restrict their travel. These “Black Laws” became a template for Jim Crow laws after the Civil War, as well as the foundation for discriminatory immigration regimes from the late nineteenth century through the present day.
Present Appeal and Historical Legacy
In terms of the book’s appeal, de la Fuente and Gross say that it will likely capture the attention of anyone curious as to how we got to a place where race orders people’s life chances, particularly, in the United States, where citizenship is tied to whiteness.
“When President Trump told four congresswomen of color to “go back” to their countries, although all four are U.S. citizens and three were born here, his tweets channeled a long American tradition of equating citizenship with whiteness. So for people who are trying to understand the history of that idea –and of the people who challenged that idea — this book is for them.”
de la Fuente and Gross believe that efforts to degrade people of African descent, to inscribe them in the law as socially inferior and as outsiders, across centuries and across the Americas, continue to shape legal practices and understandings.
“We hope readers walk away with an appreciation of the remarkable ways in which enslaved people took whatever legal knowledge they were able to glean from their social networks and turn it into claims against the state to find freedom for themselves and their families.”
“And it should be noted that in the United States, these individual freedom claims began to be seen by white people, judges and legislators, as threats to white men’s democracy. Therefore citizenship for people of color became impossible to conceive.”
In terms of early response to the book, de la Fuente and Gross offered these concluding thoughts:
“Engaging with readers of our book has been a wonderful experience. We have especially been moved by those who have a personal connection to the material. By way of example, on New Orleans native described it as “life changing” and wrote that ‘it has given me a new perspective not only on slavery but the lives of my ancestors.’ Someone wrote to Ariela on Twitter that she expected it to be ‘a riveting, painful, and urgent read’ and was giving it to her mother for her birthday.
The ability to connect with people whose own personal histories contain those struggles for freedom and full citizenship is exactly what we hoped for in writing this book.”