Catalogue


Stories of freedom in Black New York /
Shane White.
imprint
Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 2002.
description
260 p. ; 22 cm.
ISBN
0674008936 (alk. paper)
format(s)
Book
Holdings
More Details
author
imprint
Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 2002.
isbn
0674008936 (alk. paper)
catalogue key
4749490
 
Includes bibliographical references and index.
A Look Inside
Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Library Journal on 2003-01-15:
White (history, Univ. of Sydney), coauthor of the notable Stylin', here continues his exploration of African American cultural expression. He opens in New York before emancipation, focusing on the 1821 founding and growth of the African Company, a theater group, and the rise and fall of prominent black actor James Hewlett. Hewlett and the African Company are just two of many audacious examples of how former slaves asserted themselves culturally once freed-much to the chagrin of whites, who preferred blacks to maintain the lowly social position they held as slaves. Claiming New York's public space as their own through balls, music, fashion, and language, Hewlett and his fellow actors are presented as both theater pioneers and forerunners of the dynamic and exhilarating New York we know today. White's thought-provoking analysis complements George Thompson's A Documentary History of the African Theatre, the only other book-length publication on this subject. Suitable for U.S. history collections.-Sherri Barnes, Univ. of California Lib., Santa Barbara (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2002-12-02:
New York abolition, which was formally granted in 1817 but not fully carried out until July, 4, 1827, complicated the social structure of the state and city during an awkward, staggered process. During this period a theater troupe called the African Company emerged. White, a professor of history at Australia's University of Sydney, reconstructs the vital life of this troupe in the New York of the 1820s, situating its struggles within the larger context of a sometimes exuberant yet uneasy time. Not only did the company perform Shakespeare's Richard III, one of the era's most popular dramas, as its first production, but the cast often rewrote dialogue and inserted elements from other sources. As played by former slave Charles Taft, the reworked lead role took on an added dimension, becoming a version of the trickster figure from African folklore. Many white critics and community figures were, not surprisingly, scandalized by the productions, and company members suffered harassment at the hands of local toughs and authorities alike. Taft was jailed for theft, and his successor James Hewlitt became the victim of changing audience tastes that doomed his career before he ended up imprisoned as a smalltime con artist. While the African Company's existence has previously been noted by scholars, it has generally been dismissed as a novelty or aberration. Drawing on extensive research, White emphasizes such achievements as the on-stage depiction of slavery, and vividly depicts powerful personalities like Taft and Hewlitt. He makes a persuasive case for the company's cultural importance, particularly as a forerunner of the Harlem Renaissance that was still a century away. (Dec.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Appeared in Choice on 2003-05-01:
In this pathbreaking work, White (Univ. of Sydney) explores the everyday lives of African Americans who experienced the end of slavery in New York City (NYC). According to a 1799 New York State law, all slave owners had to manumit their slaves by 1827. Until now, historians have most often focused on that legislation and the 1827 celebrations that accompanied slavery's end. White's fresh perspective on gradual emancipation explores how African Americans negotiated a new freedom and identity. At the book's heart is a biography of the onetime slave and Shakespearean actor, James Hewlett. Hewlett's life gives White a means of analyzing the social, cultural, and economic uncertainties that gradual emancipation created for African Americans. His inventive use of primary sources allows him to give Hewlett and other ex-slaves a voice. In the future, any historian who lectures on or writes about the end of slavery in NYC will have to address the issues that White has raised. With its emphasis on music, dance, theater, and other cultural venues, this comprehensively researched study is an excellent companion piece to White's Somewhat More Independent: The End of Slavery in New York City, 1770-1810 (CH, Sep'91). ^BSumming Up: Essential. All levels/collections. T. D. Beal SUNY College at Oneonta
Reviews
Review Quotes
A splendid book. Stories of Freedom in Black New York digs deep into the antebellum city, and unearths far more treasures than scholars have assumed existed. Its probing investigation of the subtleties of race relations, its intertwining of theater and everyday life, its exhumation of language, perceptions, and folkways, are remarkable.
Freedom is more than words. It is felt, experienced, performed. Shane White's remarkable portrait of New York during emancipation captures African Americans struggling to express and define freedom for themselves - in the streets, the courts, and on stage. White brings his astonishing skills as a social historian to reveal a city engaging the most fundamental political questions of the day.
Shane White demonstrates that the struggle for meaningful freedom by recently emancipated blacks in early 19th century New York occurred not only in legislative halls but also in cultural venues where black New Yorkers created a public style through music, dance, street parades, and a theatrical company that informed the entire populace of their determination to be players in all aspects of the city's life. It is an intensely human story that will enlighten all who read it.
This stunning account of early black New Yorkers strutting and staging their freedom achieves its authority by recreating the pressure cooker that was gradual emancipation in the most influential city of North America. No one knows more about black street life in early nineteenth century New York City than Shane White, and no one tells it better.
With Stories of Freedom in Black New York, Shane White reinforces his position as one of the most innovative interpreters of African American culture. In this stunning work, deeply researched and narratively compelling, White explores theatrical life to deepen our appreciation of the diverse ways in which black New Yorkers defined and manifested their newly won freedom.
This is a rich and insightful book. Shane White draws on his extensive knowledge of black New York and on painstaking research to reconstruct two obscure stories. One is of the African Company, the first theatrical group to be conducted by African American, which functioned in New York City from 1821-23...The other is of one of its actors, James Hewlett...who was for a time the most prominent black actor working in the United States...White's accounts of Hewlett and the theatre are fascinating in themselves, but the real interest lies in the skill with which he weaves them into the bigger story of African New York at the end of slavery...Shane White is to be congratulated for so ably recovering that moment of possibilities.
The African Grove Theater is to African American performing arts what Mother Bethel is to African American religion. Stories of Freedom in Black New York is the best history of that landmark institution, while also tracing the transit of black people from slavery to freedom in New York. It sparkles with original insights into life in the new Republic.
The early decades of the nineteenth century were turbulent as blacks and whites struggled with the end of slavery in New York. It was an era marked by race riots, forced segregation, and degrading depictions of black life, even as whites demonstrated a voyeuristic fascination with New York's black citizenry...[White] focuses on a black theater group, its leading actor, James Hewlett, and a Jewish newspaper editor, Mordecai Noah, as telling representatives of how blacks sought to express their freedom and whites sought to keep them in their place...White captures the vibrancy and difficulties of the era when a distinct black culture began to emerge, and draws parallels to the current American cultural mélange and contemporary racial attitudes.
Claiming New York's public space as their own through balls, music, fashion, and language, Hewlett and his fellow actors are presented as both theater pioneers and forerunners of the dynamic and exhilarating New York we know today...[A] thought-provoking analysis.
New York abolition, which was formally granted in 1817 but not fully carried out until July 4, 1827, complicated the social structure of the state and city during an awkward, staggered process. During this period a theater troupe called the African Company emerged. White...reconstructs the vital life of this troupe in the New York of the 1820s, situating its struggles within the larger context of a sometimes exuberant yet uneasy time...[White] makes a persuasive case for the company's cultural importance, particularly as a forerunner of the Harlem Renaissance that was still a century away.
Shane White's short but creative book about "slavery and its lingering death" and the struggle over the "boundaries of freedom" listens closely to black New Yorkers' stories, evocatively bringing them to life for contemporary readers.
Shane White's superb history of black life in New York during the early 19th century examines African-American culture from the bottom (instead of from the top) by focusing on the audacious African Company, a theatrical group that dared to present Shakespeare with non-white casts for non-white audiences. The author also describes the growth of minstrels, black dialect and social opportunity in this extremely important book.
A treasure of historical thinking, a beautifully composed study, an extraordinary book to read...As moving and erudite a meditation as you will find on African Americans at a historical juncture when things might have turned out differently. White's point of departure is the wave of optimism and hope that surged through the black community on the heels of freedom, conferring an "edgy vitality" on street life, politics, colloquial speech, and theater in the 1820s and 1830s...The core of White's account is the story of James Hewlett, the pre-eminent black Shakespearean of his day, who played Richard in the African Company's production. With extraordinary deftness and perseverance, White has put together his biography from faint traces that Hewlett left in the historical record.
A dazzling history of the first African-American theater company in New York, focusing on principal actor James Hewlett...Superb, well-researched history, brilliantly alive.
This item was reviewed in:
Kirkus Reviews, September 2002
Booklist, October 2002
Publishers Weekly, December 2002
Library Journal, January 2003
Choice, May 2003
Globe & Mail, September 2007
Chicago Tribune, February 2008
To find out how to look for other reviews, please see our guides to finding book reviews in the Sciences or Social Sciences and Humanities.
Summaries
Bowker Data Service Summary
White recreates the experience of black New Yorkers as they moved from slavery to freedom. Through research, he imaginatively recovers the racous world of the street, the elegance of the city's African American balls and the grubbiness of the Police Office.
Main Description
Stories of Freedom in Black New York recreates the experience of black New Yorkers as they moved from slavery to freedom. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, New York City's black community strove to realize what freedom meant, to find a new sense of itself, and, in the process, created a vibrant urban culture. Through exhaustive research, Shane White imaginatively recovers the raucous world of the street, the elegance of the city's African American balls, and the grubbiness of the Police Office. It allows us to observe the style of black men and women, to watch their public behavior, and to hear the cries of black hawkers, the strident music of black parades, and the sly stories of black conmen. Taking center stage in this story is the African Company, a black theater troupe that exemplified the new spirit of experimentation that accompanied slavery's demise. For a few short years in the 1820s, a group of black New Yorkers, many of them ex-slaves, challenged pervasive prejudice and performed plays, including Shakespearean productions, before mixed race audiences. Their audacity provoked feelings of excitement and hope among blacks, but often of disgust by many whites for whom the theater's existence epitomized the horrors of emancipation. Stories of Freedom in Black New York brilliantly intertwines black theater and urban life into a powerful interpretation of what the end of slavery meant for blacks, whites, and New York City itself. White's story of the emergence of free black culture offers a unique understanding of emancipation's impact on everyday life, and on the many forms freedom can take.
Unpaid Annotation
Through exhaustive research, White imaginatively re-creates the experience of black New Yorkers as they moved from slavery to freedom. He recovers the raucous world of the street, the elegance of the city's African-American balls, and the grubbiness of the Police Office. This book offers a unique understanding of emancipation's impact on everyday life, and on the many forms freedom can take.
Table of Contents
Introduction
The End of Slavery
Staging Freedom
Shakespeare's True Representative
Imitation
Epilogue
Notes
Acknowledgments
Index
Table of Contents provided by Publisher. All Rights Reserved.

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