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The Problem and the Promise: Black Life and the Coming of Freedom in Late Nineteenth Century America


This dissertation is a cultural investigation of the meaning of freedom in America from Emancipation to the early twentieth century. Since 1776, a liberal discourse of rights has framed what freedom means in the national consciousness. Defined as an inalienable right legitimated by an infallible authority, freedom was made the basis upon which subjectivity is recognized, governments are formed, appeals are made, and revolutions retain the allure of transformative possibility. However, this idea of freedom obscures the ways in which problems with legitimacy, authority, and the sociopolitical construction of subjecthood all impact the meaning of being free in America. These problems are most apparent concerning the nation’s racial politics. The lives of black Americans have exposed the aporia between the ideal of freedom and the reality of racialized existence. The dissonance between the freedom praised as America's most valued ideal and the experience black Americans lived allows for a way of reading the coming of freedom as problem—as a collection of discrepancies, contradictions, and scenes for the violation and subjection of black people.

In this project, I read emancipation and the passing of the Reconstruction Amendments as narrative and performative events. By doing so, the freedoms extended to black Americans post-Civil War are neither bestowed by law or the radical ideals of Lincoln as emancipator or the Republican Congress, nor do black Americans initiate their own meaning of freedom of their own accord. In this moment of transition, the meaning of freedom was determined by both those in political power and those whose practices sought to negotiate the conditions in which they lived. However, as the meaning of freedom was shaped in this moment, it would be insufficient to address the problems of racial logic that restricted what freedom could mean for not only black Americans but the national body at large.

This project is an attempt to trouble what we know about freedom as it regards emancipation, abolition, citizenship, and enfranchisement. It is a project that criticizes the narrative of victory around freedom in this moment and considers the ways in which the freedom celebrated in a national historical consciousness has been the very source of the problem in determining what it means to be free in America.

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