Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915

Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915

Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915

Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915


With the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1808, many African Americans began calling for "a day of publick thanksgiving" to commemorate this important step toward freedom. During the ensuing century, black leaders built on this foundation and constructed a distinctive and vibrant tradition through their celebrations of the end of slavery in New York State, the British West Indies, and eventually the United States as a whole. In this revealing study, Mitch Kachun explores the multiple functions and contested meanings surrounding African American emancipation celebrations from the abolition of the slave trade to the fiftieth anniversary of U.S. emancipation.

Excluded from July Fourth and other American nationalist rituals for most of this period, black activists used these festivals of freedom to encourage community building and race uplift. Kachun demonstrates that, even as these annual rituals helped define African Americans as a people by fostering a sense of shared history, heritage, and identity, they were also sites of ambiguity and conflict. Freedom celebrations served as occasions for debate over black representations in the public sphere, struggles for group leadership, and contests over collective memory and its meaning.

Based on extensive research in African American newspapers and oration texts, this book retraces a vital if often overlooked tradition in African American political culture and addresses important issues about black participation in the public sphere. By illuminating the origins of black Americans' public commemorations, it also helps explain why there have been increasing calls in recent years to make the "Juneteenth" observance of emancipationan American -- not just an African American -- day of commemoration.


Tradition1… cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.

—T. S. Eliot

The white American has charged the Negro American with being without past or tradition (something which strikes the white man with a nameless horror)…;andthe Negro knows that both were “mammymade” right here at home. What's more, each secretly believes that he alone knows what is valid in the American experience.

—Ralph Ellison

T HE MEANING of a nation's history is always at issue, always up for grabs; and it is consistent with America's egalitarian ethos that anyone can reach for the interpretive gold ring. As the historian James M. McPherson has written, “no license is required to practice history in the United States. ” Amateur historians, journalists, and history buffs have a long record of participation in public historical discourse. The emergence of the Internet has provided a new forum for the discussion and exegesis of historical topics open to all with the desire and the wherewithal to participate. A curious mix of academics and amateurs with a wide range of interests and levels of knowledge can be found in cyberspace discussing Lincoln's attitudes toward black suffrage, the relative bloodthirstiness of male and female potentates, and even the appropriateness of aficionados without academic credentials considering themselves “historians. ”

But if, at some level, everyone can be his or her own historian, factors of time, money, access to public discourse, and perceived legitimacy severely restrict the impact that the perspective of an individual can have on the rest of society. Academic historians in the 1990s expressed alarm that the Disney Corporation's proposed historic theme park, “Disney's America, ” would deliver its version of the American past to more people in a single business day than a college professor might reach during the course of a career. And, at the level of the individual, the survivor of an attempted lynching, without access to some public forum, cannot really communicate his or her distinctive perspective on the past beyond family and friends. Egalitarianism may . . .

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