Stories of Freedom in Black New York recreates the experience of black New Yorkers as they moved from slavery to freedom. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, New York City's black community strove to realize what freedom meant, to find a new sense of itself, and, in the process, created a vibrant urban culture. Through exhaustive research, Shane White imaginatively recovers the raucous world of the street, the elegance of the city's African American balls, and the grubbiness of the Police Office. It allows us to observe the style of black men and women, to watch their public behavior, and to hear the cries of black hawkers, the strident music of black parades, and the sly stories of black conmen.
Taking center stage in this story is the African Company, a black theater troupe that exemplified the new spirit of experimentation that accompanied slavery's demise. For a few short years in the 1820s, a group of black New Yorkers, many of them ex-slaves, challenged pervasive prejudice and performed plays, including Shakespearean productions, before mixed race audiences. Their audacity provoked feelings of excitement and hope among blacks, but often of disgust by many whites for whom the theater's existence epitomized the horrors of emancipation.
Stories of Freedom in Black New York brilliantly intertwines black theater and urban life into a powerful interpretation of what the end of slavery meant for blacks, whites, and New York City itself. White's story of the emergence of free black culture offers a unique understanding of emancipation's impact on everyday life, and on the many forms freedom can take.
A splendid book. Stories of Freedom in Black New York digs deep into the antebellum city, and unearths far more treasures than scholars have assumed existed. Its probing investigation of the subtleties of race relations, its intertwining of theater and everyday life, its exhumation of language, perceptions, and folkways, are remarkable.
Freedom is more than words. It is felt, experienced, performed. Shane White's remarkable portrait of New York during emancipation captures African Americans struggling to express and define freedom for themselves - in the streets, the courts, and on stage. White brings his astonishing skills as a social historian to reveal a city engaging the most fundamental political questions of the day.
Shane White demonstrates that the struggle for meaningful freedom by recently emancipated blacks in early 19th century New York occurred not only in legislative halls but also in cultural venues where black New Yorkers created a public style through music, dance, street parades, and a theatrical company that informed the entire populace of their determination to be players in all aspects of the city's life. It is an intensely human story that will enlighten all who read it.
The African Grove Theater is to African American performing arts what Mother Bethel is to African American religion. Stories of Freedom in Black New York is the best history of that landmark institution, while also tracing the transit of black people from slavery to freedom in New York. It sparkles with original insights into life in the new Republic.
With Stories of Freedom in Black New York, Shane White reinforces his position as one of the most innovative interpreters of African American culture. In this stunning work, deeply researched and narratively compelling, White explores theatrical life to deepen our appreciation of the diverse ways in which black New Yorkers defined and manifested their newly won freedom.
A dazzling history of the first African-American theater company in New York, focusing on principal actor James Hewlett...Superb, well-researched history, brilliantly alive.
The early decades of the nineteenth century were turbulent as blacks and whites struggled with the end of slavery in New York. It was an era marked by race riots, forced segregation, and degrading depictions of black life, even as whites demonstrated a voyeuristic fascination with New York's black citizenry...[White] focuses on a black theater group, its leading actor, James Hewlett, and a Jewish newspaper editor, Mordecai Noah, as telling representatives of how blacks sought to express their freedom and whites sought to keep them in their place...White captures the vibrancy and difficulties of the era when a distinct black culture began to emerge, and draws parallels to the current American cultural mélange and contemporary racial attitudes.
New York abolition, which was formally granted in 1817 but not fully carried out until July 4, 1827, complicated the social structure of the state and city during an awkward, staggered process. During this period a theater troupe called the African Company emerged. White...reconstructs the vital life of this troupe in the New York of the 1820s, situating its struggles within the larger context of a sometimes exuberant yet uneasy time...[White] makes a persuasive case for the company's cultural importance, particularly as a forerunner of the Harlem Renaissance that was still a century away.
Claiming New York's public space as their own through balls, music, fashion, and language, Hewlett and his fellow actors are presented as both theater pioneers and forerunners of the dynamic and exhilarating New York we know today...[A] thought-provoking analysis.
A treasure of historical thinking, a beautifully composed study, an extraordinary book to read...As moving and erudite a meditation as you will find on African Americans at a historical juncture when things might have turned out differently. White's point of departure is the wave of optimism and hope that surged through the black community on the heels of freedom, conferring an "edgy vitality" on street life, politics, colloquial speech, and theater in the 1820s and 1830s...The core of White's account is the story of James Hewlett, the pre-eminent black Shakespearean of his day, who played Richard in the African Company's production. With extraordinary deftness and perseverance, White has put together his biography from faint traces that Hewlett left in the historical record.
Shane White's superb history of black life in New York during the early 19th century examines African-American culture from the bottom (instead of from the top) by focusing on the audacious African Company, a theatrical group that dared to present Shakespeare with non-white casts for non-white audiences. The author also describes the growth of minstrels, black dialect and social opportunity in this extremely important book.
This is a rich and insightful book. Shane White draws on his extensive knowledge of black New York and on painstaking research to reconstruct two obscure stories. One is of the African Company, the first theatrical group to be conducted by African American, which functioned in New York City from 1821-23 The other is of one of its actors, James Hewlett who was for a time the most prominent black actor working in the United States White's accounts of Hewlett and the theatre are fascinating in themselves, but the real interest lies in the skill with which he weaves them into the bigger story of African New York at the end of slavery Shane White is to be congratulated for so ably recovering that moment of possibilities.
Shane White's short but creative book about "slavery and its lingering death" and the struggle over the "boundaries of freedom" listens closely to black New Yorkers' stories, evocatively bringing them to life for contemporary readers.
- 2003, Joint winner of the James A. Rawley Prize
- 272 pages
- 5-1/16 x 7-15/16 inches
- Harvard University Press
From this author
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