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Family or Freedom: People of Color in the Antebellum South

by Emily West

Availablecloth$60.00x 978-0-8131-3692-9
New Directions in Southern History
244 pages  Pubdate: 11/01/2012  6 x 9  

In the antebellum South, the presence of free people of color was problematic to the white population. Not only were they possible assistants to enslaved people and potential members of the labor force; their very existence undermined popular justifications for slavery. It is no surprise that, by the end of the Civil War, nine Southern states had enacted legal provisions for the “voluntary” enslavement of free blacks. What is surprising to modern sensibilities and perplexing to scholars is that some individuals did petition to rescind their freedom.

Family or Freedom investigates the incentives for free African Americans living in the antebellum South to sacrifice their liberty for a life in bondage. Author Emily West looks at the many factors influencing these dire decisions—from desperate poverty to the threat of expulsion—and demonstrates that the desire for family unity was the most important consideration for African Americans who submitted to voluntary enslavement. The first study of its kind to examine the phenomenon throughout the South, this meticulously researched volume offers the most thorough exploration of this complex issue to date.

Emily West is lecturer in history at the University of Reading and author of Chains of Love: Slave Couples in Antebellum South Carolina.

Bondage, race and status mixed in 19th century America in a most bedeviling way, and West's Family First is an innovative and intense excavation of neglected aspects of slavery's most destructive influences. Her original and engaging research fits together pieces of our historical jigsaw into a new and dramatic portrait of the antebellum South. -- Catherine Clinton, Queen's University Belfast

Emily West’s Family or Freedom does what every good monograph should: it takes a small slice of a history and illuminates the whole. This persistent, thoughtful inquiry into why some free black people gave up their freedom tells us a great deal about slave kinship, the nature of the master-slave relationship, and slavery itself—about the fluidity of the lines between slaves and free black people, between slavery and freedom. -- Anthony Kaye, author of Joining Places: Slave Neighborhoods in the Old South

Family or Freedom is a sophisticated and subtle work that sheds important new light on the legal and social complexities that underpinned both slave and free societies in the late antebellum and Civil War South. West locates the uneasy and little understood subject of enslavement petitions within the broader history of the hardening of the color line and the growth of the proslavery argument. A triumph of scholarship and a master-class into how to persuade dry archival evidence to yield up its all-too-human and sobering stories, Family or Freedom is a marker for the future of slavery studies as well as a path-breaking and perceptive study of the ties that bind. -- Susan-Mary Grant, author of A Concise History of the United States of America

An elegant and deftly argued study…. Family or Freedom reveals the blurry, hazy line between slavery and freedom, it explores the myriad of marital, familial, and emotional ties that crossed the slave-free divide, and it fathoms the initiative, poverty, and anguish of those people who struggled to keep their families together. West’s account of these complex, thoughtful, and painful decisions, helps us understand the diverse and often contradictory meanings attached to slavery and freedom in the antebellum South. -- Richard Follett, author of The Sugar Masters: Planters and Slaves in Louisiana’s Cane World, 1820-1860

Emily West's bold and imaginative study adds immeasurably to the literature on central themes in the history of slavery and race relations in the antebellum South. A subtle, complex and stylistically elegant work that will command wide and entirely deserved attention. -- Betty Wood, Girton College, Cambridge

West offers a deeply original and path-breaking study of African Americans’ petitions for re-enslavement and for residency in locales that sought to exclude free people of color. Her impressive, innovative research and expansive analysis forces historians to reconsider our presumptions about the polarity of slavery and freedom, the gendering of familial and affective ties among enslaved and free people, and the challenge of negotiating the continuum between slavery and freedom in racially-stratified societies. West’s book is a must-read for scholars of slavery and freedom in the antebellum South. -- Leslie A. Schwalm, author of Emancipation's Diaspora

West delivers a sophisticated analysis of the porous boundaries between slavery and freedom for African Americans of the era, demonstrating with startling clarity the networks of affective relationships that existed between slave and free and black and white, and why, despite the consequences, free blacks may have submitted a request for enslavement. -- Rebecca Fraser -- Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

Emily West's Family or Freedom offers a straight-forward examination of the rare phenomenon of voluntary enslavement in the late antebellum South. [...] her work nevertheless sheds light on an obscure topic and makes a compelling case for its significance [...]" -- Jeff Forret -- The Journal of American History

West's study as a whole would be very valuable reading in undergraduate and graduate courses that examine race relatios in the antebellum South, concepts of slavery and freedom, or famiy history. -- Andrew C. Lannen, Stephen F. Austin University

West's analysis helps to open a new and exciting phase in the historical study of free blacks in antebellum America. -- Gregory D. Smithers -- American Historical Review