In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863/stories of Freedom in Black New York

By Field, Phyllis F. | Journal of the Early Republic, July 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863/stories of Freedom in Black New York


Field, Phyllis F., Journal of the Early Republic


In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863. By Leslie M. Harris. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. Pp. xii, 380. Illustrations. Cloth, $42.50.) Stories of Freedom in Black New York. By Shane White. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002. Pp. 1, 260. Cloth, $27.95.)

One need only reflect on the secondary sources cited in these two books to see that the history of the African-American population of early New York City has moved from the periphery to the center of historical consciousness. Once confined to specialized journals or niche-filling monographs from lesser publishers, New York's early African-American residents now appear as the topic of books on the lists of the finest scholarly presses. No longer does it matter that a once proportionately large black population in New York City was becoming ever smaller in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Instead, the various ethnic, class, ideological, political, and cultural transformations of antebellum New York are precisely what make it vitally important as a site to study the emergence from slavery of the North's largest community of African Americans.

By selecting a title that reflects neither his specific subject (New York's first African-American theatre and the performers it spawned) nor a specific time span (roughly the 181Os-SOs), Shane White invites the reader to see that his true story is a larger one: freedom, the quest to achieve it, and the obstacles that intrude. he aims at a broad audience, and thanks to the cleverness and vibrancy of his prose, he should certainly win it.

When New York State passed gradual emancipation statutes in 1799 and 1817, it began a process of defining freedom's meaning, a process that African Americans in New York City embraced enthusiastically. From newspapers, police records, manumission society documents, travel accounts, and court records White reconstructs how blacks viewed themselves and how others viewed them. Specific types of language, behavior, and dress created unease among whites but an exhilarating sense of testing limits among blacks. This was a time of experimentation. Theatre emerged as a new form of cultural expression for blacks, which, like other forms, was a proud and assertive claim to be part of the city's public life. In a chapter entitled "Staging Freedom," White illustrates how the African Company, which was formed in 1821, became a venue to try out Shakespeare and even to stage a play about slavery. Actor James Hewlett, after the company broke up in 1824, went on to stage one-man performances imitating Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean, among other performers, and even to sing Italian opera for racially mixed (and often rowdy) audiences. A trip to England was aborted when fellow actor Ira Aldridge went first and assumed Hewlett's "African" stage persona. Ultimately, Hewlett used his acting skills in ways that landed him in prison, while whites began to use the stage to parody black people in the minstrel show. White cleverly suggests the parallels between black and white cultures in the early republic as they experimented with each other's cultures and tested the limits to which they would go to experience that which was different and forbidden. Hewlett apparently ended his career in Trinidad, an indication to White that African Americans had soured on the possibilities of freedom in New York City.

White is a skilled writer whose credibility derives from his ability to explain and elaborate on Hewlett and other actors' actions, which are inevitably uncertain and even ambiguous, by considering them in relation to what he can discover about the larger black community. As actors, Hewlett and his confederates exhibited the same brashness as did all the newly freed as they contested for employment and social recognition on the streets of New York. White, an Australian scholar, has benefited from others who have preceded him and compiled references to African Americans and the theatre in New York's myriad newspapers, but the imagination and creativity of his construction of these materials into a believable story is uniquely his. …

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