Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North


Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Martin Delany -- these figures stand out in the annals of black protest for their vital antislavery efforts. But what of the rest of their generation, the thousands of other free blacks in the North? Patrick Rael explores the tradition of protest and sense of racial identity forged by both famous and lesserknown black leaders in antebellum America and illuminates the ideas that united these activists across a wide array of divisions. In so doing, he reveals the roots of the ...
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Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North

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Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Martin Delany -- these figures stand out in the annals of black protest for their vital antislavery efforts. But what of the rest of their generation, the thousands of other free blacks in the North? Patrick Rael explores the tradition of protest and sense of racial identity forged by both famous and lesserknown black leaders in antebellum America and illuminates the ideas that united these activists across a wide array of divisions. In so doing, he reveals the roots of the arguments that still resound in the struggle for justice today.

Mining sources that include newspapers and pamphlets of the black national press, speeches and sermons, slave narratives and personal memoirs, Rael recovers the voices of an extraordinary range of black leaders in the first half of the nineteenth century. He traces how these activists constructed a black American identity through their participation in the discourse of the public sphere and how this identity in turn informed their critiques of a nation predicated on freedom but devoted to white supremacy. His analysis explains how their place in the industrializing, urbanizing antebellum North offered black leaders a unique opportunity to smooth over class and other tensions among themselves and successfully galvanize the race against slavery.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
In recent years so much attention has been given to African American slaves that we are all the more in need of a comprehensive book like Patrick Rael's Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North, which serves as a prelude to post-emancipation black history. (David Brion Davis, Yale University)
David Brion Davis
In recent years so much attention has been given to African American slaves that we are all the more in need of a comprehensive book like Patrick Rael's Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North, which serves as a prelude to post-emancipation black history.
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Meet the Author

Patrick Rael is associate professor of history at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.

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Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North

By Patrick Rael

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2002 University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8078-2638-6


Of Men, Lions, and History

Only when lions have historians, will hunters cease being heroes. -African proverb

I am glad the time has come when the "lions write history." -Wendell Phillips to Frederick Douglass, 1845

We must begin to tell our own story, write our own lecture, paint our own picture, chisel our own bust, ... acknowledge and love our own peculiarities. -William J. Wilson, African American journalist and educator, 1853

On a warm August afternoon in Newcastle, England, in 1863, the British Association for the Advancement of Science met to hear papers presented by scholars in its Ethnological Section. Before a rapt audience, one of its distinguished members, Dr. James Hunt, lectured lengthily on the superiority of the white race over its darker cousins. In the middle of the lecture, from the midst of the audience, a lone black man rose to challenge Hunt. Arguing for the innate ability for African-descended people to "rise," the man engaged the learned racial theorist on none of the grounds of the new racial science. Instead, he told a tale from Aesop, of a man and a lion, both walking down the street, arguing over which represented the superior species. According to the story, hard pressed to prove his case, the man was delighted to spy a public house, the sign for which depicted a man wrestling a lion to the ground. Considering his argument won, the man pointed to the picture as evidence of men's superiority over lions. The lion, however, simply asked, "Ah, but who painted the picture?" The meeting erupted. Defenders and challengers of black capacities descended into verbal melee, and the session adjourned prematurely.

The fable of the man and the lion has potent ideological significance, for both the antebellum context of racial thought and modern-day appraisals of that context. First, it suggests that interpretations-whether of current events, history, or ideas-often are subject to the prejudices and presuppositions of the person who constructs those interpretations. In this case, the man was predisposed to see evidence of human superiority in the sign. Second, it implies that the ability to construct interpretations is an expression and vehicle of power, which may be used to sustain or subvert iniquitous social relations. In the story, the painting reinforced the superiority of humans over lions. Third, it demonstrates that the evidence used as authority to support interpretations often is not as objective as it is assumed to be. The lion in the story, for example, challenges the authority the man invokes on the basis that its source renders it biased. Finally, the fable reveals the process of interpretation itself as contested ground. Regardless of the intent of the man who painted it, once in public the sign's meaning could be endlessly controverted-in this case in the service of the political struggle between the man and lion.

The man who stood at the Newcastle meeting to relate the fable had been held as human chattel in the American South for the first twenty-four years of his life. William Craft had escaped perpetual servitude through a daring flight to the free states with his wife, Ellen. She, lightly complected, had posed as a young white master traveling north with his slave, William. The ingenuity, courage, and tenacity of the Crafts was typical of the thousands of enslaved African Americans who risked all to demonstrate to themselves and the world that they were the property of none but themselves. The Crafts had lived through a remarkable range of experiences that the western world had to offer. They had risen from the utter depths of slavery, a category of legal personlessness that had built the modern world, to champion the natural rights and fundamental humanity alleged to buttress the best governments of that world. They were in a unique position to appreciate the ironies contained in Aesop's fable. They were, like a great many other African American activists in the period, remarkably aware of the ideological forces surrounding the struggle for freedom in a country devoted to white supremacy.

Throughout the antebellum period, black northerners-like the lion in the fable-painted their own paintings. They championed the values of antebellum society in ways that argued for their own freedom and equality, and they constructed interpretations of current and historical events that served their distinct needs. In painting their own paintings, they added yet another layer of irony to the fable by relying primarily on the canvases and colors provided by an America bent on repressing them. Black people contested nearly every notion employed in their degradation. From national history to personal morality, they resisted ideological conceptions intended to justify their iniquitous treatment. In developing a distinct body of protest thought from the ideological material of antebellum America, the lion in fact painted its own painting, overtop that of the man. In instance after instance, African Americans in public appropriated the ideas of antebellum society, only to reformulate hostile notions into potent sources of empowerment and uplift.

Craft's telling of the story of the lion's painting suggests a level of ideological sophistication not usually attributed to this early stage of black protest thought. Nearly every tenet of twentieth-century black protest thought, however-from Martin Luther King Jr.'s concern with the "content of our characters" to Stokely Carmichael's call for "Black Power"-can trace its roots to the body of thought developed by black spokespersons in the context of a dynamic, changing antebellum North. That thought, in turn, grew out of a complex, often one-sided dialogue with a society committed to white supremacy and black repression, which structured their thought in important ways. Rather than withdraw from public discussions regarding the nature and destiny of the nation, they believed the best hope for the amelioration of their people's benighted plight lay in an appeal to the hearts and minds of their oppressors. They saw themselves and America as between revolutions: the American one, which had free the nation from British tyranny and most northern blacks from servitude; and the one they awaited, which would complete the purification of the republican experiment and fulfill the mandate of God.

This book examines the foundations of black identity and protest thought in the northern United States. It reaches back to the American Revolution but focuses primarily on the period from the 1820s to the Civil War. It presents a history not of institutions or the movement for black equality and the abolition of slavery but of African American identity and social structure in the North, and of its implications for black leaders' construction of a body of protest thought. It seeks to understand the processes through which African American spokespersons (newspaper editors, clergy, leaders of community institutions, black abolitionists, and others) constructed a public racial identity and to examine how this identity in turn informed African American critiques of a democratic nation predicated on the principle of white supremacy.

Only a relatively small number of African Americans were able to consistently set forth their ideas in the public sphere. By definition, this capacity rendered them distinct from the mass of northern blacks-an elite among a marginalized and underprivileged people. The very fact that these men and women possessed the means to leave their thoughts in the historical record suggests their elevated status. Any examination of their body of thought must first question whether that thought was in any way typical of the thought of black northerners as a whole. The first task, then, is to understand these people, their milieu, and their relationship to those they purported to lead. Where did leaders come from? Were they distant from the black rank and file by virtue of their class or other status? Or were they deeply integrated into the communities from whence they came? How did their protest thought reflect their relationships with their communities? In short, how representative were these "representative" colored men and women? These questions pervade the first half of the book, which addresses questions of leadership, social structure, and identity formation. Chapter 1 sets the context for the emergence of black protest in the antebellum period. It briefly considers the place of the black North in the African diaspora, with an eye toward the factors that rendered it a particularly fruitful seedbed for the style of protest and notions of identity that emerged there. Then, through a group biography of those who attended black state and national conventions, it moves on to examine the place of black leaders in their communities and the nature of the protest thought they constructed. Chapter 2 considers the public performance of black identity in the antislavery celebration. After the northern emancipations, these events emerged as the domain of a new black leadership; they revealed the class tensions that beset northern black communities as well as leaders' efforts to combat the disunity this entailed. Chapter 3 concludes this discussion of identity formation by analyzing the antebellum controversy among black spokespersons over appropriate names for the race. This debate embodied deep tensions between an effort to mold a universal black identity and a desire to appear "respectable" before the eyes of a hostile white public.

Having fleshed out the sources of black leadership and identity, this study turns to black protest ideology itself. The driving questions here are ones that black intellectual history has long confronted but which most recent historical work on northern black communities has tended to elide: where exactly did the black protest tradition come from, and what was its relationship to the social context of an expanding, urbanizing America? In framing their protest ideology, did black thinkers draw upon the ideological currency of the antebellum North? If so, how? What were the parameters and implications of such appropriations and exchanges? Did "assimilated" black thinkers draw upon the ideas and values of the antebellum social context to fashion their arguments? Did such a position aid their causes, which were to abolish slavery and achieve a meaningful equality for free African Americans? Or did black elites formulate their protest thought by relying on ideas from outside the American intellectual context, drawing ideas from ideological traditions rooted in relatively autonomous black communities, or perhaps from African antecedents? If so, did this render their cause revolutionary, and more likely to succeed? What do the answers to these questions tell us about the ideological context of antebellum America, and about the relationship between protest ideologies and the process of social change in U.S. history?

By exploring two dominant "idea sets" into which African American thought can, for purely heuristic purposes, be placed-elevation and uplift, and ideas of nation and race-I argue that black protest thought drew upon the values and fundamental social presuppositions of a northern culture, which African American elites actively participated in constructing. Through a complex process of appropriation, refashioning, and reconstruction of ideas extant in the antebellum North, black elites crafted challenges to racial inequality that appealed to cherished American values rather than stepped outside the bounds of the American ideological landscape. Constrained like all contemporary Americans by existing language and systems of explanation, black elites found themselves challenged to develop rhetorical strategies rooted in the American tradition. They sought not to revolutionize existing discourse but instead to appeal to its core values in changing the "public mind" on racial matters.

Their first strategy addressed contemporary concerns with moral character and the virtues touted by an emerging class society. As market expansion and liberal ideology enmeshed an urbanizing North, the civic virtues thought to be required of citizens in a self-governing republic steadily became the moral virtues required of middle-class urban denizens. As cofabricators of America, black elites in the North shared these concerns, though they refracted them through the lens of their plight. The cornerstone of their efforts to uplift the race, they believed, lay in demonstrating to a corrupt public mind that African Americans were capable of the virtues required of those who would be considered equals. Chapters 4 and 5 examine black spokespersons' use of the vocabularies of elevation and respectability, first by placing African American thought within the broader American context, then by exploring the distinct uses to which black leaders put that rhetoric.

The second strategy of black public figures, invoking the discourse of nationalism in their behalf, occupies the final chapters. The counterpoint to liberalism and Enlightenment universalism, romantic ethnic nationalism posed a threat to blacks' inclusion by positing America as a white republic. Black thinkers answered this challenge by positing the race as a national entity in its own right, with a unique genius and destiny. In short, they claimed the discourse of nationalism for their own, appropriating and refashioning it in distinct ways. Chapter 6 explores the origins of black nationalism as a discourse of nationalism, locating it not so much among an enslaved "folk" but as the product of a northern intelligentsia deeply familiar with the international discourse of nation and appreciative of its growing currency in public debate at home. The final chapter explores black thinkers' use of specific nationalist tropes. It examines the ways black thinkers did this in response to the racialism rampant in American nationalism, as well as the ways in which they imbued their nationalism with a distinct sense of religious mission.

Several caveats are necessary before continuing. First, I must acknowledge the vagaries of my geographic and temporal boundaries. My "North" occasionally stretches south into places such as Baltimore and west into California. Similarly, my "antebellum" occasionally reaches back into the 1820s, if not before. I plead here only that I am interested in ideas primarily, and these often refuse to conform to the boundaries scholars find so useful. I have employed both regional and chronological boundaries in the loosest possible conceptual sense and make no implicit argument about a worldview that stopped at the Mason-Dixon Line or at the Mississippi or changed radically at any given point.

Second, because this book takes as its source base primarily statements made in public, it unavoidably follows antebellum contemporaries in slighting the participation of African American women in the freedom struggle. I do not presume that the general (but by no means complete) absence of black women's voices from the realm of public speech requires no examination. The masculinized public sphere did not constitute something normative that requires no investigation. The general absence of black women in the sources I examine here suggests a countervailing presence-the presence of important forces that tended to silence women and that deeply conditioned the shape of black public protest. The dearth of women's voices in the movement permitted the emergence of a mutually reinforcing process whereby a heavily masculinized style of public protest marginalized women's roles, thereby minimizing the possibilities that African American women might exert greater influence over the gender components of black public protest. I have surely not treated gender issues with the care they deserve. I can plead only that the relative lack of documentation on black women's roles makes it difficult to study them in the same way that male activist leaders may be studied. My subject first and foremost here is the black public protest tradition. Properly incorporating issues of gender-women's general absence and the masculinized culture that filled the vacuum-requires methods so different from those necessary for the rest of the study that they threatened to throw all other issues into shadow. This is, of course, not an argument for diminishing the importance of gender, but for privileging it in a subsequent study.


Excerpted from Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North by Patrick Rael Copyright © 2002 by University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Of Men, Lions, and History 1
1 A Different Measure of Oppression: Leadership and Identity in the Black North 12
2 Besieged by Freedom's Army: Antislavery Celebrations and Black Activism 54
3 The Sign of Things: The "Names Controversy" and Black Identity 82
4 Discipline of the Heart, Discipline of the Mind: The Sources of Black Social Thought 118
5 Slaves to a Wicked Public Sentiment: Black Respectability and the Response to Prejudice 157
6 A Nation Out of a Nation: Black Nationalism as Nationalism 209
7 This Temple of Liberty: Black Racialism and American Identity 237
Conclusion: Black Protest and the Continuing Revolution 279
Epilogue 291
Notes 299
Bibliography 351
Index 409
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