To Live an Antislavery Life
Personal Politics and the Antebellum Black Middle Class

Erica L. Ball

Rethinking the relationship between the personal and the political in the years before the Civil War


“Ball drives a stake into the heart of the tired argument that much of the aspiring black middle class in the antebellum North turned its collective back on the plight of its enslaved southern brethren in an inward-looking quest for uplift, respectability, and local political rights. Ball draws upon many of the same sources often cited in support of that argument—prescriptive conduct literature, domestic discourse, newspapers, convention debates, and cultural productions such as the Anglo-African Magazine. However, by placing these sources in conversation with slave narratives and interpreting them in fresh ways, she is able to demonstrate persuasively that, for free blacks, self-advancement could be a revolutionary, even subversive, act and the strong family unit could serve as the essential site for building race consciousness and fighting slavery.”
—Joanne Pope Melish, author of Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780–1860

"Ball's well-written book makes a good case for the impact of individual lives 'lived well' on the elimination of slavery and racism. It should have broad appeal among audiences interested in nineteenth-century African American history and cultural studies."
—Julie Winch, author of The Clamorgans: One Family's History of Race in America

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In this study of antebellum African American print culture in transnational perspective, Erica L. Ball explores the relationship between antislavery discourse and the emergence of the northern black middle class.

Through innovative readings of slave narratives, sermons, fiction, convention proceedings, and the advice literature printed in forums like Freedom’s Journal, the North Star, and the Anglo-African Magazine, Ball demonstrates that black figures such as Susan Paul, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Delany consistently urged readers to internalize their political principles and to interpret all their personal ambitions, private familial roles, and domestic responsibilities in light of the freedom struggle. Ultimately, they were admonished to embody the abolitionist agenda by living what the fugitive Samuel Ringgold Ward called an “antislavery life.”

Far more than calls for northern free blacks to engage in what scholars call “the politics of respectability,” African American writers characterized true antislavery living as an oppositional stance rife with radical possibilities, a deeply personal politics that required free blacks to transform themselves into model husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, self-made men, and transnational freedom fighters in the mold of revolutionary figures from Haiti to Hungary. In the process, Ball argues, antebellum black writers crafted a set of ideals—simultaneously respectable and subversive—for their elite and aspiring African American readers to embrace in the decades before the Civil War.

Race in the Atlantic World, 1700-1900

Published in association with the Library Company of Philadelphia’s Program in African American History.
A Sarah Mills Hodge Fund Publication.

Page count: 200 pp.
5 b&w photos
Trim size: 6 x 9


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Erica L. Ball is an assistant professor in the Department of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton.