Revising Freedom: Law, Literature, & the Racial Imaginary

Presenter: 

A.B. Wilkinson, History

Presenter2: 

Michael McGee, African American Studies

Date: 

Thu, Mar 21, 2013 - 4:00 pm to 5:30 pm

Location: 

691 Barrows

Revising Freedom: Law, Literature, & the Racial Imaginary

Blurring the Lines of Race and Freedom: 
Mulattoes in the Early-Nineteenth-Century United States

A.B. Wilkinson, History

This presentation will combine elements from the last two chapters of my current dissertation, which generally focuses on the lives of mulattoes (people of mixed African, European, and sometimes Native American descent) in English colonial North America and the early United States Republic.  This section of my work reveals how the rights of a number of mulattoes were being retracted in the first decades of the nineteenth century at the state level, even as concessions were still extended to certain people of mixed heritage both in slavery and in freedom at more local levels.  Mulattoes successfully used legislative petitions at the county and state levels in order to maneuver around increasing restrictions set in motion by the explosion of cotton production and plantation slavery in the early nineteenth century.  This included larger constraints placed on slaves and free people of color, many of whom were mulattoes.  As politicians at the state level constricted access to legal manumission, those of mixed-heritage with strong connections to European American heritage and patronage gained freedom more easily than people of full African heredity.  These slaves experienced varying degrees of mulatto privilege.  This mulatto or light-skinned privilege also existed among free people of color, who sometimes claimed access to rights as they established themselves within their own communities.  Even as widespread rights were diminishing, mulattoes retained a general advantage over their fully African brethren in terms of emancipation and other benefits.

The second section finishes with a discussion of the deteriorating rights of free people of color, many of whom were mulattoes, up through the first three decades of the nineteenth century.  The labor requirements of the cotton plantation economy required that slaves be increasingly kept in bondage and that free people of color be neutralized as a possible threat to the labor system.   Elites in the U.S. Southeast had long associated free people of mixed ancestry with their African lineage, and though many mulattoes did not share this view, this characterization increasingly informed restrictive legal statutes at the state level.  As the rights of free people of color were stripped away, mulattoes were disproportionately affected because they made up a high segment of the free population of African descent.  In this manner, mulattoes were routinely pushed towards only being identified by their African ancestry.  Arguably, this early nineteenth century process moves U.S. mixed-race ideology to a more strict line of hypodescent that will later be solidified under the one-drop rule.

Why Our Post-Race Society Still Has A Race Problem: How Race and Freedom Go Hand-in-Hand
Michael McGee, African American Studies

 

Since the late 19th century, freedom for African Americans has been directly associated with resolving what has been commonly regarded as the race problem.  In this way, race has functioned as the primary barrier to freedom as equality, the guarantee and protection full citizenship rights, and complete participation in American rights, duties, and privileges.  Between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries, the race problem became metonymical for race itself, establishing an antithetical relationship between race and freedom.  This presentation considers the different positions taken by leading African American writers during this time period to arrive at an understanding of freedom in America that resolves the race problem.  Reading several writers such as ranging from W.E.B. DuBois to Ralph Ellison, and positions on race ranging from impediment to gift to the basis for a separate nation, this presentation reassesses exactly how and for whom race is a problem, particularly in relation to the different ways in which freedom is imagined.  Through this reevaluation of freedom and the race problem, this presentation argues that race is an integral part of freedom in America so much so that freedom itself is in jeopardy when America makes claims to be post-race.