Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Colored Travelers: Mobility and the Fight for Citizenship before the Civil War

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Colored Travelers: Mobility and the Fight for Citizenship before the Civil War

Article excerpt

Colored Travelers: Mobility and the Fight for Citizenship before the Civil War. By Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor. The John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. Pp. xviii, 218. $34.95, ISBN 978-1-4696-2857-8.)

Antebellum travel inherently involved vulnerability. Outside the protective walls of secure homes, travelers placed themselves at the mercy of a litany of dangers: exploding railroad engines, fire-engulfed steamships, precarious suspension bridges, and capricious weather. For African Americans, however, travel entailed additional hazards: racialized threats of verbal vitriol, physical violence, and contested attempts to criminalize and curtail black mobility. It is this perilous world of African American mobility that historian Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor examines in Colored Travelers: Mobility and the Fight for Citizenship before the Civil War. Making use of print sources including slave narratives, interviews, letters, slave songs, sketches, abolitionist lectures, journals, and newspaper articles, Pryor contends that "colored travelers"--that is, free and financially capable people of color who resided in the antebellum North--believed that uninhibited travel constituted "a crucial component of U.S. citizenship" and that "by protesting against segregation, colored travelers identified the cars, compartments, and cabins of public conveyances as critical sites for equal rights protest" a century before Rosa Parks and the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 (p. 2).

Pryor focuses her analytical gaze on the methods of curtailment imposed on colored travelers. The author asserts that whites invoked the word nigger (I follow Pryor's deliberate lead here by avoiding the use of quotation marks around the word and the euphemism "n-word") to menace colored travelers and inhibit black movement. In fact, Pryor situates her etymology of nigger within a broader recognition of the burgeoning free black population of the North--a people increasingly accomplished, socially poised, and physically mobile.

Indeed, it was this social and physical mobility that inflamed antiblack sentiment. Moreover, Pryor deftly delineates the polysemous usage of the word nigger. Rather than identify the word solely as a pernicious epithet fraught with terror, Pryor demonstrates that, contingent upon social class and context, African Americans used the word nigger as a vehicle for protest and as a signifier of social identity. …

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