Pinnen on Ribianszky, 'Generations of Freedom: Gender, Movement, and Violence in Natchez, 1779-1865'

Author: 
Nik Ribianszky
Reviewer: 
Christian Pinnen

Nik Ribianszky. Generations of Freedom: Gender, Movement, and Violence in Natchez, 1779-1865. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2021. 286 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8203-6012-6.

Reviewed by Christian Pinnen (Mississippi College) Published on H-Early-America (November, 2021) Commissioned by Patrick Luck (Florida Polytechnic University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56573

Natchez is a well-trodden research area for historians of race and slavery due to the town’s small footprint and outsized wealth accumulated through enslaved labor. However, a work specifically on free people of color was missing from the literature. In Generations of Freedom: Gender, Movement, and Violence in Natchez, 1779-1865, Nik Ribianszky elucidates the history of free people of color in the Natchez region up to the end of the Civil War. Ribianszky follows a generational model pioneered by Ira Berlin to explore the various paths Black people pursued to achieve and defend freedom in Natchez. From what she calls the “foundational generation” to the “conditional generation,” she shows how some families of color were able to create a successful existence in the otherwise hostile environment of one of the richest communities of enslavers in the nation. However, as “conditional” indicates, Ribianszky always maintains that freedom was precarious for Black Natchez residents.

Though she highlights various generations of free people of color, Ribianszky does not follow a chronological approach in her chapters. Rather, she focuses on various thematic aspects in the lives of free Blacks in the region. While this approach is subject to some pitfalls, it does permit her to focus on pertinent issues in the lives of freed people such as gender, family, violence, and sexual violence, in detail. She pries individual people from the Natchez archives and rebuilds family connections and concomitant alliances and squabbles across the freed community. She weaves a rich tapestry of free Black life in the shadow of enslavement and reveals a vivid mosaic of freed people beyond the most famous representative of the class in Natchez, William Johnson, a free Black barber who left a diary that offers historians a unique window into the life of free Black people in the antebellum South, and Natchez specifically. The book includes many tables that speak volumes about her long hours spent in the Natchez records identifying and tracking freed people. This data-driven approach, in conjunction with the micro-histories of free Black families, adds heft to the conclusions put forth in the book.

Violence receives an in-depth and captivating analysis throughout the work. Ribianszky includes both the physical and psychological dimensions of violence in her analysis, which gives the reader a more complete picture of the misery that living in a slave society entailed for Black community members. In turn, the author does not portray Black community members as saints who did not perpetrate violence. Rather, she shows Black people as both victims and perpetrators of violence. She specifically highlights violence throughout the book as a possible catalyst for freedom. While enslavers frequently inflicted sexual violence on Black women, Ribianszky carefully establishes that enslavers who perpetrated such violence also held the power to free the women they violated. Yet once Black women achieved freedom they continued to be vulnerable to sexual violence from men of all complexions, with little to no recourse. Violence was multifaceted in Natchez, according to Ribinaszky, who skillfully navigates the difficult and complex discussion of the topic.

While William Johnson and family receive their share of attention, the author adds other families to the interpretive framework. For example, she also traces members of the Barland family. Through the Barland family, she highlights the concept of passing as white in the community, and the dangers that approach nevertheless entailed as complexion remained precariously fluid for people of mixed ancestry. One might pass as white, but if unlucky, white communities could and did reverse the process of passing. Hence the precariousness of freedom for Black people is made evocatively clear.

The first chapter exemplifies Ribianszky’s approach. Working through the century preceding the Civil War, she follows the freed people revealed by the court records and investigates how they achieved freedom as the foundational generation. She explores how people attained freedom, which often necessitated trips across—or up—the Mississippi River into parts of the country that legally allowed enslavers to bestow liberty at a time when the state of Mississippi did not. Even as freedom was extended, the author concludes that “violence undergirded the free Black experience, from the foundational generation and continuing through the conditional generation that followed, and this is showcased most obviously in the very creation of the community of color” (p. 38) If violence was the foundation of freedom, then it also necessarily became a part of a free life.

The following chapters home in on specific forms of violence and the subsequent experiences, frequently gendered, of free Blacks. Ribianszky posits that “community formation in Natchez was a gendered process with multifarious facets of distinction between men’s and women’s manumission experiences.” Manumission records, in Natchez as across most slave societies, show that women represented “the lion’s share of the manumitted” (p. 40). That in turn meant that women were extremely important for the foundational generation and beyond as it was their freedom that established the freedom of their children. Yet Ribianszky is careful to point out that abuse was very often at the core of freedom, and in many ways it may have continued after. As she deftly reasons, the threat of continued sexual violence meant “it was not an uncontested liberty” (p. 56). Because violence continued to shape the lived experience of freed people, Ribianszky’s analysis remains focused on these episodes.

Ribianszky argues that what could protect freedom was passing as white and property ownership. Examples of both are covered in chapters 5 and 7. Because “freedom and ownership of property buttressed one another,” the concept of property is an important one to tease out (p. 103). In a slavers’ society like Natchez, freedom itself was of course a form of ownership. For a Black person, the author acknowledges, ownership of one’s body was the exception, not the norm. Yet, following the logic of a slave society, ownership of others, often family members, also bolstered the status of freed people in Natchez. Real estate was of course always beneficial, and Ribianszky does an excellent job of finding property-owning Black women in Natchez. Nevertheless, regardless of property ownership, Blackness remained a problem for white neighbors, and so many Black people with lighter complexion attempted to pass as white to avoid the dangers of having a dark complexion in Natchez’s slave society.

The book introduces many new people and families of color to the reader that were previously subsumed by the example of William Johnson. Ribianszky adds missing pieces to the mosaic of Black life—free and enslaved—in Natchez. The book is well written and well argued. However, one minor criticism is that greater analytical depth would have been achieved had Ribinaszky separated Spanish examples chronologically. Enslavement was not much different under the Spanish, but freedom did hold a few more avenues of protection. Spanish Natchez, for example, saw the creation of kinship groups between free and enslaved Blacks and Europeans through godparentage in the local Catholic Church. That was not a possibility in the Mississippi Territory or under Mississippi state law. Freed people, and those that sought to become free, engaged a different cultural and legal landscape under the Spanish that complicates comparison between the pre-1798 cases and the American legal records.

Nevertheless, the book is a very welcome addition to a growing and strong literature that focuses on Natchez and its Black citizens.[1] It adds additional people of color to the story that is so often reduced to Natchez’s “white-pillard past.”[2] Deeply researched and well crafted, this book lays bare the hard stories of freedom and the realities of how different Black freedom was from white liberty, and how dearly people of color sought to protect it. All the while, Ribianszky paints a painstakingly researched and sobering picture of life for freed people in antebellum Natchez.

Notes

[1]. See, for example, Ariela Julie Gross, Double Character: Slavery and Mastery in the Antebellum Southern Courtroom (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006); and Kimberly M. Welch, Black Litigants in the Antebellum American South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

[2]. Steven Hoelscher, “The White-Pillard Past: Landscapes of Memory and Race in the American South,” in Landscape and Race in the United States, ed. Richard H. Schein (New York: Routledge, 2006), 39–72.

Citation: Christian Pinnen. Review of Ribianszky, Nik, Generations of Freedom: Gender, Movement, and Violence in Natchez, 1779-1865. H-Early-America, H-Net Reviews. November, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56573

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