Becoming Free in the Cotton South

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Becoming Free in the Cotton South challenges our most basic ideas about slavery and freedom in America. Instead of seeing emancipation as the beginning or the ending of the story, as most histories do, Susan O'Donovan explores the perilous transition between these two conditions, offering a unique vision of both the enormous changes and the profound continuities in black life before and after the Civil War.

This boldly argued work focuses on a small place—the southwest corner of Georgia—in order to explicate a big question: how did black men and black women's experiences in slavery shape their lives in freedom? The reality of slavery's demise is harsh: in this land where cotton was king, the promise of Reconstruction passed quickly, even as radicalism crested and swept the rest of the South. Ultimately, the lives former slaves made for themselves were conditioned and often constrained by what they had endured in bondage. O'Donovan's significant scholarship does not diminish the heroic efforts of black Americans to make their world anew; rather, it offers troubling but necessary insight into the astounding challenges they faced.

Becoming Free in the Cotton South is a moving and intimate narrative, drawing upon a multiplicity of sources and individual stories to provide new understanding of the forces that shaped both slavery and freedom, and of the generation of African Americans who tackled the passage that lay between.

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Editorial Reviews

A powerful, exemplary social history of workers that captures both their strivings for a more just world and the overwhelming force of race, gender, and capital on their lives...With unflinching and evocative prose, O'Donovan has written a captivating and convincing history of the enormous struggles that black women and men engaged in before and after emancipation...Becoming Free in the Cotton South, in short, illustrates the immense and subtle upheavals, adjustments, and continuities that attended slavery's demise. Its compelling ideas and refreshing narrative deserve the widest audience possible.
— Moon-Ho Jung
O'Donovan presents an excellent overview of the lives of African Americans in southwestern Georgia from about 1820 through 1868. The work shows the development of the cotton economy in this unique region from its very beginning until the early stages of emancipation. However, the book's strength is its treatment of the daily lives of African Americans. The impact of the planters' initial migration to southwestern Georgia, the ways in which slaves negotiated almost every aspect of their lives with their masters, and the effect of the Civil War on the region are all well developed. O'Donovan also shows the actual process of emancipation at work and how it affected black men, women, and children differently. Her work is especially strong in its treatment of women and discusses economics, social history, and politics equally well. O'Donovan expands on the earlier works of Hahn, Bryant, and Berlin while acknowledging her debt to them. This work is extraordinarily well written, often allowing African Americans to speak for themselves.
— K. L. Gorman
This is a superb book...O’Donovan has produced a crisp, concise, and well-written piece of scholarship...[She] has created her own unique deterministic model combining contingency, on the one hand, with the iron limitations of the past, on the other...Her argument is one of continuity, but an unstable continuity continuously challenged by the choices of individuals and the unforeseeable happenstance as various as the weather, war, or the Fourteenth Amendment.
— Martin J. Hardeman
Journal of American History
In her pioneering history of Reconstruction in southwest Georgia, Susan Eva O'Donovan reminds us that the men and women negotiating the first few years of freedom there operated within a framework established by their subregion's particularly harsh history of slavery and war...Compelling reading and offer welcome glimpses into this crucial moment in history...This book deserves a thoughtful readership.
— Mark Roman Schultz
Journal of Southern History
O'Donovan thus offers an original and meticulously researched study of how sixty-two thousand slaves became free in southwestern Georgia, an area that remained untouched by the Civil War...O'Donovan's commitment to a specific swath of land in order to observe how slavery and freedom unfolded is by any account an important contribution to southern history...Her book is finely argued, elegantly written, and breathtakingly researched.
— Jim Downs
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674024830
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 5/15/2007
  • Edition description: ANN
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan O'Donovan is Associate Professor of History at the University of Memphis

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