In 1863, the US Civil War was raging and Black men were finally being encouraged to join the fight. Abolitionist and freed slave Frederick Douglass published a broadside titled Men of Color, Call to Arms! Desiring to emphasize that only the slaves could free themselves from their bondage, Douglass borrowed the line, “Who would be free themselves must strike the blow” from Lord Byron’s epic poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.”
In his new book titled Seizing Freedom: Slave Emancipation and Liberty for All, historian David Roediger discusses how enslaved Black America did “strike the blow” and in the process opened up the avenues for women and labor to begin to free themselves. Conversely, he also discusses the ongoing attempt to stifle movements for labor rights, Black and women’s liberation after the emancipation of the slaves. This latter tale is one of repression by the economic and power elites that run the United States. It is also the story of organized terror gangs like the Klan and unorganized white mobs fighting and killing in their determination to defeat those gains toward liberation.
Roediger uses W.E.B. DuBois’ classic text Black Reconstruction as a primary inspiration, while informing the text with text materials from the likes of Sojourner Truth and Elizabeth Cady Stanton; Karl Marx and Frederick Douglass and a myriad of contemporary historians from Hank Gutman to Eric Foner. Seizing Freedom is not so much a chronological history of the period covered as much as it is a penetrating examination of the ideas, individuals, movements and debates composing the movement to end US slavery forever. By providing the readers with this examination, Roediger makes clear and essential links to movements that came into existence largely because of the abolitionists.
There are moments in human history where everything seems possible. The period of revolution in Europe during the latter decades of the 18th century is one such period. So was the period after World War Two now known as the Sixties. Another historical moment that must be included is the one discussed in this book. Besides including the abolitionist period, Civil War and Reconstruction in the United States, the revolutions of 1848 in Europe are also part of those decades’ weltanschauung. Roediger borrows a phrase from historians of the French revolution describing such moments as “revolutionary time.” In short, to quote the author, it is a time “in which the pace of change and the possibility of freedom accelerated the very experience of time.” Indeed, even if the times do not bring about a revolutionary overthrow of governments, the popular groundswell these times engender force governments to make very radical reforms. They are also usually followed by periods of reaction and disillusionment.
Seizing Freedom delves into both the revolutionary and post-revolutionary time periods as they reference the emancipatory movements of the mid-nineteenth century in the United States. The unity of the various elements involved in forcing the end of slavery prior to, during and immediately after the Civil War is juxtaposed with the exposure of differences based on race, class and gender in the movement as the forces of Southern reaction coalesced with the interests of northern liberals interested in maximizing profits. In a drama that has been repeated more than once since that time, the special interests based on gender, race and class of groups in the anti-slavery coalition turned those differences into fissures that could not be resolved. This provided the power elites an opening to regain control and forced the formerly liberation movements into election slogans and special interest groups. This marked the end of that particular revolutionary time.
Bob Dylan wrote in his memoir Chronicles: Volume I that the United States is still fighting the Civil War. This latest text by David Roediger assumes a similar understanding. It further enhances this understanding by examining the revolutionary effects of the emancipation of the slaves that that war was a crucial (if not the most crucial) part of. He tells the reader that it wasn’t Abraham Lincoln who freed the slaves, but the slaves themselves who struck their own blow for liberation. It was the slaves who inspired and motivated a grand coalition of women, clergy, writers, laborers, businessmen, soldiers, farmers and others in a revolution that overturned the dominant understanding in the US that black men, women and children were, first and foremost, property. Another equally important aspect of this revolution was ridding the nation of the perception that African-Americans, even if they were free, had no rights that white men had to respect. It is telling that more than one hundred fifty years later, Black residents of the United States are still fighting for that respect.
Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.