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.

Unsplash Photo Credit: The British Library

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:

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.

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.

Gross continues:

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:

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.

Ariela J. Gross and Alejandro de la Fuente

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 authors note that a free person of color in Havana could be part of public life, but in Louisiana or Virginia, they were excluded:

De la Fuente and Gross continue:

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:

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:

They continue:

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.

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.

In terms of early response to the book, de la Fuente and Gross offered these concluding thoughts:

Great Books, Great Minds

Highlighting The Inner World of Emerging Authors and…

Diamond Michael Scott

Written by

Independent Journalist and Global Book Ambassador | Great Books + Great Minds Project https://greatbooksgreatminds.substack.com/

Great Books, Great Minds

Highlighting The Inner World of Emerging Authors and Thought Leaders

Diamond Michael Scott

Written by

Independent Journalist and Global Book Ambassador | Great Books + Great Minds Project https://greatbooksgreatminds.substack.com/

Great Books, Great Minds

Highlighting The Inner World of Emerging Authors and Thought Leaders

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