Author Interview--Crystal L. Webster (Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood) Part 1

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature Crystal L. Webster to talk about her new book, Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood; African American Children in the Antebellum North, published by the University of North Carolina Press in June 2021.

Crystal Webster is an Assistant Professor of African American history at the University of British Columbia. She received her BA from Oberlin College and PhD from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She has published book chapters, peer-reviewed articles in for example Abolition and Slavery, and popular pieces in for example the Washington Post.

To start, Crystal, how did you come to write a book about childhood, and especially, African American childhood? That is such a unique topic!

CLW: Early on in my undergraduate and graduate school experiences, I was heavily influenced by the kinds of questions that came out of Black studies, and the work of Black women historians. Scholars including Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Jennifer Morgan, and Daina Ramey Berry led me to some of the primary questions of this project— what were the distinct experiences of slavery and freedom for Black women and children? My interests were further complicated by the work of scholars of childhood, and of Black girlhood— LaKisha Simmons, Nazera Wright, Anna Mae Duane, Kabria Baumgartner, and Robin Bernstein. Each have shown that concepts of childhood and age, alongside race and gender, deserve recognition as important categories of analysis. This scholarship led me to the primary question of my book: what did the transition from slavery to freedom in the North look and feel like for Black children? How do we get at Black children’s voices and experiences in the historical archive? I reconciled these questions by drawing upon my interdisciplinary training in Black studies to engage sources in imaginative ways.

The second group I was very much influenced by were Black children themselves. As a schoolteacher I witnessed the ways in which Black children’s desires were often at odds with the adults around them. Adults attempted to fit the children's behaviors into adult-concerned
 interests. I took this experience with me in my engagement with a historical archive in which the voices of my subjects were dually marginalized because they were children and because they were Black.

What do you argue in Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood?

CLW: Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood is a social history of Black children in the U.S. North, from the 1780s to the Civil War. It is situated in the North— Boston, Philadelphia, and New York—because of the fraught and complicated transition from slavery to freedom in the region. Many states implemented gradual emancipation which indentured African Americans in childhood and emancipated them once they reached adulthood. This book takes up this phenomenon of northern emancipation from the perspective of Black children, as this process redefined what a child was while it restricted Black children's access to protected treatment of children. Northern Black children were suspended between slavery and freedom and they did not fit within newly established categories of child and adult. 

My book is invested in imagining the world of the antebellum North and the process of emancipation from the eyes of Black children, thereby challenging adult-centered narratives. I resist the impulse to focus on who or what Black children would grow up to be. Instead I argue that their childhoods were significant in and of themselves. Black children's attempts to perform childhood in legible ways were political and historically significant as acts of claiming and redefining freedom.

I am glad you are already raising the question of sources and I do want to chat briefly about them. I assume few of the children themselves left us with detailed accounts of their childhood. How did you learn about them and their experiences?

CLW: I think there is sometimes an assumption that records for Black children, especially in the antebellum North, are either nonexistent or incredibly scarce. But what I found is that northern Black children’s experiences and voices came through in unexpected places. Some of these were sources that the children themselves had created others were created or curated by the adults around them. When I approached my sources creatively—looking at literature, toys, and images—alongside more traditional sources then, I was able to piece together Black children's thoughts, feelings, and experiences. For example, in my book I look at handwriting samples. I really enjoyed writing about them because they are artifacts produced by Black children, but they were also preserved by the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society for specific reasons—as evidence of the intellectual potential of African Americans. Yet I highlight the ways in which Black children creatively asserted their own thoughts feelings and beliefs. In my reading of the handwriting records, they were not merely records of rote memorization and repetitive handwriting practices. Instead, Black children proudly claimed the books as their own by signing their names largely, altering the scripts, and taking possession of the pages. Black children asserted pride and joy in these rare records through small acts like these.

To follow up, how do you deal with silences and racial stereotyping by the authors of sources? I am especially here thinking about some of the references you have that indicate the start of misconceptions about for example African American boys/men. 

CLW: In many of the sources in my book, adults recorded the lives of Black children in schools or orphanages in ways that reflected their own political and social motivations. This is especially true for white reformers—Quakers, anti-slavery activists, or even colonizationists— who were involved in the orphanage movement. They often represented Black children and their families as in need of intervening care. These sources also had gendered depictions of Black children. In general, they favored Black boys in the narratives they published of intellectual exceptionalism. They also described boys as inherently or especially criminal, but also clear examples of the positive potential and impact of reform movements. These early representations of criminal behavior—even of young, Black children—certainly paved the way for associations between blackness and crime.

When reformers highlighted Black girls’ experiences, it was often to point out their deviant or disreputable behavior. Although I suspect the officials in schools, orphanages, and reformatories, or those to whom Black girls were indentured, may have sexually violated Black girls, this history was virtually absent from public record, or if it was included the language was very opaque. For these reasons, my book has a much clearer focuses on Black boyhood than girlhood in the nineteenth century. This angle is certainly one I hope to revisit in future projects.