Manisha Sinha explains why it’s important that we acknowledge the role of black abolitionists

Historians in the News
tags: Black History Month, Black History, black abolitionists

On Jan. 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation officially freed most of the country’s 4 million African-Americans from bondage. Cemented three years later by the ratification of the 13th Amendment, the end of slavery was the consummation of the Abolition Movement, a centurylong crusade that played as important a role in American history as the Founding Fathers’ fight for independence. 

The story of abolition gets short shrift in most Americans’ historical education, however. We might learn about a zealous Boston journalist named William Lloyd Garrison, the escaped slaves whose stories horrified enlightened white Northerners, and a best-selling novel called “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” — but that is hardly the whole story, says Manisha Sinha, a professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of a new history, “The Slave’s Cause.” For one, blacks themselves played a much larger role than is generally acknowledged in bringing about their own liberation. From the beginning of trans-Atlantic slavery in the 17th century, black thinkers shaped the strategies and ideology of abolitionism, grappling with the legal, religious, economic, and pseudo-scientific underpinnings of America’s peculiar institution. On the ground, slaves themselves resisted by rebelling, escaping, protesting, and challenging their status in court — efforts that were crucial to the realization of the abolition movement’s goals.

Sinha argues that the successful fight against slavery launched a great American tradition of radical social movements. It’s a history, she notes, that activists, from the LGBT movement to Black Lives Matter, would do well to understand.

Sinha spoke to Ideas from her office in Amherst. Below is an edited excerpt.

IDEAS: How did we wind up with such a simplistic narrative of abolition?

SINHA: The narrative of white abolitionism — and especially of hypocritical, bourgeois, paternalistic white abolitionists — began with their contemporaries, Southern slaveholders and Northern conservatives who viewed abolitionists as hypocritical fanatics. They had this notion that abolitionists were these armchair philosophers who had never been to the South and had no idea what they were talking about. Ignoring the black presence in the abolitionist movement was important for slaveholders because their whole philosophy was based on the idea that African-Americans weren’t resisting slavery. That continued at the turn of the century, when the American academy had completely excluded African-Americans and did not do African-American history. It became as entrenched in American historiography as views about the Civil War being a needless conflict between brothers. ...

Read entire article at The Boston Globe

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