A FAR CRY FROM FREEDOM: GRADUAL ABOLITION (1799-1827) NEW YORK STATE''S CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY ________________________________________ Review by Deborah Williams-Muhammad Local Historian, World Scholar and Author, L. Lloyd...
A FAR CRY FROM FREEDOM: GRADUAL ABOLITION (1799-1827)
NEW YORK STATE''S CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY
Review by Deborah Williams-Muhammad
Local Historian, World Scholar and Author, L. Lloyd Stewart''s book, A Far Cry From Freedom: Gradual Abolition (1799-1827) New York State''s Crime Against Humanity is a well researched, well written, compelling book for anyone who places a value on truth. Using his family''s history as the catalyst for the research that would become this book, it is clear that Mr. Stewart saw his family''s history as the story of thousands of people of African descent in New York State. I noted that this book was unique in its content and focus; but also, that as it clearly illustrates a story. Complete with rare documents, actual records, maps, illustrations and pictures, one is reminded that this is not merely a thorough presentation of facts, but indeed the stories of people-families. Families whose lives were impacted in ways that permeated generations of existence.
In A Far Cry From Freedom, Mr. Stewart dispels the myth of a more humane enslavement in New York State as he compares New York State and its various localities to the South-Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina. Reading the book reminded me that I have often referred the New York State as "Up South". Just as Cheikh Anta Diop and J.A. Rogers insisted through their writings on an uncompromising honesty, L. Lloyd Stewart demands the same accurate and critical look at history. In a world where so many play fast and loose with the facts and present revisionist history as fact, it is imperative that we have such honest accounts of history to inform, and when possible, ignite action.
The Gradual Abolition Act of 1799 essentially established a pattern of codifying statutory servitude, complete with the potential criminalization for failure to comply. Mr. Stewart outlines the profound and insidious legal provisions that would serve as the foundation for today''s juvenile justice and child welfare systems'' "disproportionate minority contact". A Far Cry From Freedom illustrates the reality of conspired benefit between lawmakers, slaveholders (often one and the same), and government; with total disregard for those enslaved and their families. The atmosphere of devaluation of the lives of people of African descent in New York State legally, socially and intellectually was arguably fundamental in these laws. This devaluation has given birth to a continued marginalization that remains evident now in 2006. Excavating legal history is a slow process, frequently resisted by those who fear its impact. I would hope that as Mr. Stewart''s work is read, examined, quoted and discussed, that people would be compelled to truly understand the impact of New York State''s gradual abolition both in New York State and throughout the nation.
The author presents to readers a section on Albany County that uncovers what at the very least can be characterized as a blatant disregard for the negative impact of slavery. However, such disregard was met with the powerful "attitude and arrogance" of local aristocrats who vehemently fought for continued enslavement and held onto it through gradual abolition in order to reap the economic and social benefits.
The book chronicles the participation of such recognized families as the Ten Eycks, Schuylers, Vandehydens, Van Rensselaers, Lansings and Bleekers, without being overly didactic. Mr. Stewart has what I would consider a strong but generous voice; while he presents this viewpoint unapologetically, he is never preachy or angry. This point of view lends a fresh outlook on an issue that is often mentioned, but rarely thoroughly explored. He encourages the reader to examine abolition from the framework of a longitudinal observer. As a reader I was led logically down a path to analysis development and fueled by the documentation of gradual abolition''s impact as in the following passage.
"Despite the level of skill African descendants possessed, they were increasingly relegated to the most menial jobs and persistently forced to the bottom rung on the economic and social ladder. White immigration to the state made matters worse, but economic downturns were another factor. President Thomas Jefferson''s Embargo of 1804, the depression that followed the War of 1812, and the Panic of 1819 all hit the African descendant community the hardest, as white immigrants flooded into the domestic service industry in the 1810s days. According to Herman Bloch in "The Circle of Discrimination" the number of Irish filing for employment with the New York Society for the Encouragement of Faithful Domestics in the late 1820swas more than three times that of African descendents. Even the number of other "whites" filing for employment surpassed African descendents."
As a social scientist and organizer I was motivated to use the information in the book to inform social change efforts. The danger and challenges posed to freedom and democracy by nullifying this history and by unchecked assumptions about slavery and abolition are the two great themes running through the history of the New York State and the United States.
What will be the impact and what will be done with this information remains to be seen; but this timely book begs a more public dialog about such issues as reparations, systemic racism, Black leadership and representation. In this post-Katrina world, I am reminded that there remains a need for education, analysis and discourse. A Far Cry From Freedom can and should serve as a catalytic tool in this process. The author writes in the Introduction,
"...This work is not meant to be a conversation between historical scholars. Neither is the substance and content of this work meant to be presented as some type historical novel. On the contrary, this work should be accepted and read as a documented representation of historical fact-designed to provide people of African descent with an accurate depiction of the periods of Enslavement and Gradual Abolition in New York State and further, it is designed to allow African descendents to examine how the political, social and economic policies of these periods impacted the growth and survival of families of African descent during New York''s first two centuries of existence."