The Politics of Self Emancipation
I have been reading (and rereading) Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning over the last few days and it has rekindled some thoughts that recall graduate school classroom debates at the University of Virginia. Is self emancipation a political action?
McCurry thinks so. I will save an in-depth review of the book for a later date, but for now I will note that she believes slaves – in the contexts of impressment, Confederate military duty, and the opportunity for escape – developed political networks and formed a political entity with which both Confederate and United States governments had to deal.
I’ll give her this. Many slaves organized, spread war news through plantation networks, and seized opportunities when they were presented. But is this political? Certainly not in the traditional sense – yet ruling out political activity based on narrow definitions is always a bad idea.
I still can’t help but wonder if we are retrospectively assigning the term “political” to a group of people who did not assign it to themselves. Could self emancipation and the development of communication networks function politically as…say…intentionally slowing the work pace on a plantation as a subtle protest to the institution? I am not sure the latter is political either. Just protest – and perhaps vindictiveness. And for the former – it may be nothing more than an attempt to remove oneself from a bad situation in the hopes of finding a better one. Not necessarily political…but certainly human nature.
One could consider political action in terms of personal investment (even without the franchise) in some sort of governing body – state, community, region, section, etc…like joining the Union army, for instance. That seems political. But even here I tend to drift to the traditional sense of the term.
My point with all of these equivocations over the term itself and the actions supposedly (or not) defining it is that I am not yet convinced that the broader definition of politics holds up from the point of view of those engaging in said actions – but I am keeping an open mind…and I am more than happy to discuss the subject with anyone.