Patrick Rael, Black Identity & Black Protest in the Antebellum North

In Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North, Patrick Rael explores the ways that black northerners utilized the ideas of antebellum America generally to coordinate protest thought, and a conception of their own identity, as a way to argue for their own freedom and equality.  Black northerners both used, and contributed to the development of, antebellum notions of respectability, moral character, and middle class virtue, as a way of gaining greater respect within the community, and according to Rael, in an attempt to change the “public mind” about issues of race.  Rael’s scholarship contributes to a number of historiographical strands.  First, he seeks to blur the hard and fast distinctions drawn by other scholars (accommodation vs. resistance, for example), and argues instead that black northerners during the antebellum period wove their arguments through “the disparate strands of the ideological fabric surrounding them” (8).  He also objects to “culturalist” histories that highlight success stories among disadvantaged groups, arguing that these types of stories bely the difficulty of the lives of historical actors.  Rael seems to presage Walter Johnson’s argument about the use of agency by culturalist historians.  Finally, he objects to what he terms the black nationalist school of thought, that argues black embrace of moral uplift and elevation made them “co-opted dupes of a white middle class.”  Alternatively, Rael posits that ideas of moral uplift and bourgeois values belonged no more to whites than they did to blacks, and that, in fact, blacks themselves helped in the formation of those ideological frameworks.

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