Beyond Freedom: Disrupting the History of Emancipation. Edited by David W. Blight and Jim Downs. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017. Pp. 208. Cloth $79.95; paper, $24.95.)
The problem at the core of this collection--the contested and multiple meanings of freedom after the American Civil War--enters the historiography of emancipation from two distinct vantage points. First, the differing perspectives of the main protagonists--planters, freedpeople, deliverers--figure prominently in a complicated historical narrative. They brought varying, often irreconcilable understandings of freedom to bear in the protracted confrontation opened up by emancipation. W. E. B. DuBois noted more than eighty years ago in Black Reconstruction in America that these "contending and antagonistic groups spoke different and unknown tongues," shouting past one another while attempting to advance their particular visions.
There is a second path by which differing conceptions of freedom enter the literature: interpretive differences among historians aiming to reconstruct the past have shaped understanding no less than the documentary record itself. Malicious assumptions about black inferiority permeated scholarship associated with the Dunning school well into the twentieth century. Subjected to withering assault by DuBois in 1935, it was ultimately dislodged after a revisionist surge driven by the postwar black freedom struggle. This new framework found full expression in the publication of Eric Foner's Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 in 1988.
Foner acknowledges his debt to DuBois, and like others attempting to bring the archive to bear on the interpretive framework animating Black Reconstruction in America, his work reflects not merely the rejection of Dunning's crude racism but a positive embrace of DuBois's attention to political economy. Much of the impressive scholarship generated in the immediate post-civil rights era attributes substantial responsibility for the gap between freedpeople's expansive vision and Redemption's dismal reality to the outworkings of Republican free labor ideology. Leading scholars focused closely on new challenges facing...