How Black women gave the term “liberty” its meaning and expanded the scope of liberty in the nation’s capital during the nineteenth century.
“Washington, D.C. was southern in orientation even it was an important site of antislavery activism for abolitionists.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Tamika Nunley. Nunley is Associate Professor of History and Comparative American Studies at Oberlin College. Her book is At the Threshold of Liberty: Women, Slavery, and Shifting Identities in Washington, D.C.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Tamika Nunley: Much of our political climate is shaped by competing ideas about the identity of the nation and who gets to be included. I begin the book by looking at the nation’s capital as a symbol of the nation’s aspirations for legitimacy, but also as a site of contradiction and slavery. Designating the nation’s capital along the Potomac was a political compromise to appeal to the interests of slaveholders who were suspicious of a northern capital. Carved out of the oldest slaveholding states in the nation, the capital became a contested site of liberty. As Washington emerged as an important hub of the domestic slave trade and the target of abolitionist activism, Black women tested the reach of liberty by making claims to freedom, earning a living, pursuing education and leading their communities as activists. The tension in the book is that liberty is still limited even after Black women become legally free. At the Threshold of Liberty specifically examines the concept of liberty and how it came to shape the identity of the United States, but more specifically, how Black women gave the term its meaning and expanded the scope of liberty during the nineteenth century. Like today, Black women are doing the work of holding the nation accountable to its most treasured ideals. This book offers an early history of this tradition.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I hope they will find inspiration from the stories and discover that these women came up against a set of barriers that were designed to restrict the liberty of Black people. We are still wrestling with challenges today in the form of political disenfranchisement, limited economic mobility, gender discrimination and the afterlives of slavery (to name only a few). Black women were policed and harassed by slaveholders, slave traders, police and mobs of white locals. Local laws included legal codes that were created to govern the lives of Black women in ways that distinguished the parameters of criminality for Black people from meanings of criminality assigned to white inhabitants of the United States.
I don’t think activists and organizers will find this particularly surprising, but I hope they appreciate seeing how these struggles manifested historically. Black activists and community organizers read this kind of scholarship, and I hope that those who are allies will find their way to books about Black women’s history to deepen their knowledge of the historical experiences of Black women. In these struggles, we can see the traditions of mutual support and mobilization among African Americans in Washington, D.C. Black women who were enslaved, or viewed as fugitives, refugee, free or criminal, envisioned themselves in different contexts and worked to transform a world in which slavery, race, and gender posed a number of incredible obstacles.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
Books like mine tend to focus on trying to help people understand slavery and its impact. Today, we refer to slavery with a very limited understanding of the different forms in which the institution took shape. We often forget that Washington, D.C. was a site of slavery and the domestic slave trade. When you walk along the national mall and think about what it might look like during the first half of the nineteenth century, most people don’t realize that you would envision slave pens, markets, and coffles with slave traders making preparations for a long trek to the markets of the Deep South. Washington, D.C. was southern in orientation even it was an important site of antislavery activism for abolitionists.
I would also want readers to understand that Black women struggled to support and help build the robust African American institutions that we associate with Washington, D.C. today. I also hope to add further context and insight about what it meant to become free. The history of slavery and emancipation can often seem linear, but the question I was interested in was: what was slavery in the nation’s capital? And if these women ever became free, what did that actually mean? What did it look like? When you trace the lives of these women, you realize that their lives were still incredibly circumscribed. It was difficult to earn a living beyond a very narrow set of employment options. Much of Black women’s labor was underpaid and exploited, and the struggle to survive required the collective and mutual support among kinship networks within the city.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
This is a huge question! First, my dissertation advisor Elizabeth Varon is an excellent mentor and she trained me as a historian. I admire her both professionally and personally.
I’m fortunate in that generations of Black women historians paved the way for this work to be done and I can do this work because they established both a rich tradition and intellectual foundation for historians in my generation to build upon. Letitia Woods Brown was one of the first Black women to write a published history of African Americans in the nation’s capital and much of her careful research has made the field of DC history possible.
My mentor Thavolia Glymph has produced some of the most important and innovative work in gender and slavery during the nineteenth century. She is an inspiration to me and I’m fortunate to have the privilege to work with her.
My work is also indebted to scholars such as Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Barbara Fields, Deborah Gray White, Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Daina Berry and Kali Gross. Right now, I can’t get enough of work from Saidiya Hartman, Christina Sharpe, Marisa Fuentes, Katherine McKittrick, and Jessica Marie Johnson. I read and re-read their work and always learn something new.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
The women in the book were imagining new worlds, mainly because the worlds in which they lived limited who they could become, what they could do, and where they could go. They weren’t always in a position to act upon these ideas, and most spent years in bondage without ever realizing the worlds they dreamed of. The concept of shifting identities is all about the ways these women struggled to imagine something different than what nineteenth-century America allowed. They show us that our ancestors have been dreaming and imagining new worlds for centuries. What this book shows us is that we can take some of the strategies that these women employed in the past and reconstitute them in ways that apply to our present and desired future. For instance, many of these women envisioned, created, and financially supported the vibrant institutions associated with Black life in Washington, D.C. These include schools, churches, literary societies, sites of leisure and pleasure, and organizations of uplift. The ethos behind the creation of these institutions emphasized mutual support and action. In some ways, this book allows us to return to Black women’s traditions for organizing and collective survival to work toward new futures, and new worlds.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.
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