Biographies of Women and Emancipation in the AmericasHistorians in the News
tags: books, African American history, emancipation, womens history, Atlantic Slave Trade, African Diaspora
Last fall, many people waited anxiously for the results of the U. S. elections. From Tuesday, November 3rd through Saturday, November 7th, the nation and the world waited to see which state would tip the scale and end one of the most contentious election cycles in American history. Pennsylvania clinched the election for President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice-President-Elect Kamala Harris. Harris, a woman of both Caribbean and South Asian descent and the daughter of immigrants, represents many “firsts” for the occupant of the nation’s second highest office. Meanwhile, some found the results from Georgia shocking. A coalition led by Black women organizers pulled off what, to many, seemed improbable: the state that once seemed a solid bet for Republicans had turned blue on the election map. Pundits scratched their heads. But for those better versed in Black women’s history, and the histories of women of color more broadly, we saw in the results from Georgia as well as Arizona and New Mexico our grandmothers, sisters, aunts, siblings, and kin. When we vote in our best interest, we deliver results that also benefit our kin, our community, and our country. Electoral politics being one of many tools of our activism, Black women and femmes, along with our allied sisters and siblings, delivered the “wholly impossible” in the face of widespread voter suppression, a global pandemic, and systemic violence.
Our current moment, one in which Black women’s political action and freedom practice are freeing an entire nation, is deeply rooted in Black women’s history as freedom makers. As If She Were Free: A Collective Biography of Women and Emancipation in the Americas, edited by Erica L. Ball (Occidental College), Tatiana Seijas (Rutgers University), and Terri L. Snyder (California State University, Fullerton), is a particularly timely text on women’s history of freedom. As the editors note, “It was comparatively rare for women to seek freedom only for themselves. By far, women acted as if they were free by protecting their families” (14). Reaching back to sixteenth-century New Spain (Mexico), Black women have defined, shaped, claimed, and fashioned freedom. The editors ground this collective biographical project, placing women of African descent at its center, in both feminist praxis and the contemporary #MeToo, #SayHerName, and #BlackLivesMatter movements. The result of their cooperative effort with twenty-four contributing is a collective portrait of women’s freedom praxis across geographic, imperial, and socio-legal contexts.
Ball, Seijas, and Snyder organize As If She Were Free into four chronological sections, which engage the rise of Atlantic slavery, the expansion of Atlantic slavery, second slavery, and the aftermath of slavery. As the editors carefully note, chronology may be a helpful guide, but traditional temporal bounds tell a limited story, one that foregrounds the particularity of colonial and national timelines rather than women’s lives, experiences, and freedom praxis. The timelines of nation states, colonial and imperial projects, and abolition and emancipation in different contexts have long left women, free and enslaved, out. Relying on those timelines to organize the volume would again erase women’s histories and their definitions of freedom. To avoid this pitfall, the editors use an alternate chronology, one with enough elasticity to hold the granular history that each biography illuminates. Freedom, the editors make clear, has disparate meanings across diverse contexts but the slavery each of their historical subjects must endure, navigate, and combat is particular: New World, race-based, hereditary, chattel slavery. The editors put five core questions to each author about the women’s lives they engaged: How did she claim freedom? What was her route to freedom? What obstacles did she face? What were the gendered dimensions of claiming freedom? What is freedom?