Between Slavery and Freedom: Philosophy and American Slavery

Between Slavery and Freedom: Philosophy and American Slavery

Between Slavery and Freedom: Philosophy and American Slavery

Between Slavery and Freedom: Philosophy and American Slavery


Using the writings of slaves and former slaves, as well as commentaries on slavery, Between Slavery and Freedom explores the American slave experience to gain a better understanding of six moral and political concepts - oppression, paternalism, resistance, political obligation, citizenship, and forgiveness. The authors use analytical philosophy as well as other disciplines to gain insight into the thinking of a group of people prevented from participating in the social/political discourse of their times. Between Slavery and Freedom rejects the notion that philosophers need not consider individual experience because philosophy is 'impartial' and 'universal'. A philosopher should also take account of matters that are essentially perspectival, such as the slave experience. McGary and Lawson demonstrate the contribution of all human experience, including slave experiences, to the quest for human knowledge and understanding.


Between Slavery and Freedom is a work that has been percolating for many years. As a graduate student at the University of Minnesota in the early 1970s, I had the good fortune of discussing slavery and slave narratives with Ralph Crowder, then a talented graduate student in history. After reading numerous slave narratives, I was struck by what the slaves had to say about slavery and the slave experience. These narratives gave me new insights and caused me to rethink claims about slavery that I took to be obviously true.

I began to collect and read various sources on slavery and audited a graduate seminar on the topic. This research only increased my enthusiasm for knowledge on American chattel slavery. At the same time, I was working my way through a graduate program in philosophy at the University of Minnesota. In the early seventies these two activities seemed unrelated. Philosophy was one thing and research on slavery was another. When, however, I was asked to create and teach a course on philosophy and black experience in the department of philosophy at the University of Illinois, Chicago, in 1972, I began to explore the philosophical issues involved in the subject of slavery. It was at this point that the idea of philosophical examination of the issues raised by slavery merged with the exploration of the history of slavery.

As luck would have it, my colleague at the University of Illinois, Irving Thalberg, in addition to being a first-rate philosopher, was an avid reader of African-American history and culture. Conversations with Thalberg made it clear that there were issues connected with the American slavery experience that needed to be addressed philosophically.

I taught courses on philosophy and the black experience at both the University of Illinois and Rutgers University. In these courses, I examined such issues as slave resistance, paternalism and slavery, and personal identity. The need to write on philosophy and slavery using the slave narratives became even more important after reading Henry Louis Gates and Charles T. Davis’s work on these sources (The Slaves’ Nar-

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