Academic journal article The Historian

To Live an Antislavery Life: Personal Politics and the Antebellum Black Middle Class

Academic journal article The Historian

To Live an Antislavery Life: Personal Politics and the Antebellum Black Middle Class

Article excerpt

To Live an Antislavery Life: Personal Politics and the Antebellum Black Middle Class. By Erica L. Ball. (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2012. Pp. xv, 135. $22.95.)

Amidst a slave nation, free African Americans developed and established a national community, albeit one that was centered in the Northern, free states. That community included a rising--or, as historian Erica Ball denotes, aspiring--black middle class. Ball has completed a thoroughly researched and well-written narrative that studies the emergence of the Northern black middle class. Focusing on the thirty-year period prior to the American Civil War, To Live an Antislavery Life is a study of black protest thought and activism based on a literary and historical analysis of antebellum, black print culture. Ball analyzes a wide sampling of that print culture, including slave narratives, sermons, works of fiction, advice columns in African American newspapers and magazines, and proceedings of state and national black conventions.

In exploring the relationship between antislavery discourse and the emergence of the Northern black middle class, Ball shows how the aspiring black middleclass domestic ideals played an essential role in the struggle for freedom. This discourse of respectability, according to Ball, entwined the personal and the political--namely, the self-improvement, domestic side with the political, antislavery aspects of the aspiring black middle class. She explores the connections between racial elevation and black protest activity, including antislavery. Her literary analyses of, among others, the slave narratives of Samuel Ringgold Ward, James W. C. Pennington, and Frederick Douglass illustrate how black discourse in such writings reinforced black conduct literature.

Ball's objective is to challenge prior assumptions regarding the meaning of black discourse. …

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