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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
The Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
Topic: FreedomTopic: IdentityTopic: InstitutionsTopic: PoliticsTopic: Forward
Topic: Freedom
Toolbox Overview: The Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
Resource Menu: Freedom
Text 1. The Moment of Freedom
» Reading Guide
•  Link


Text 2. Booker T. Washington
Text 3. W.E.B. Du Bois
Text 4. Charles W. Chesnutt
Text 5. Citizens
Text 6. Reconstruction
Text 7. Migration
RESOURCE MENU » Reading Guide Link

Reading Guide
1.  The Moment of Freedom
- George Moses Horton, "Song of Liberty," poem, 1865
- Slave Narratives from the WPA Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938, selections
- Winslow Homer, Untitled [At the Cabin Door], oil on canvas, 1865 and 1866  Discussing Art
- Edmonia Lewis, Forever Free, marble sculpture, 1867  Discussing Art

  The Moment of Freedom

With the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, enslaved persons were declared free. But not until two years later and the defeat of the Confederacy were they truly free, learning the news from Union soldiers, other slaves, or (sometimes months later) their masters. What did free mean? Can I leave the plantation? How will we get food and clothes? How am I different? For the four million newly emancipated persons, the transition from slavery to freedom was a defining moment of their lives—although not always apparent at the time.

Among them was poet George Moses Horton of North Carolina, whose writings had been published for two decades before emancipation. The poem offered here is not great literature, but it does capture the euphoria of liberation. In it freedom re-creates the world, giving "all who live" the chance to start again "as in Eden." Edmonia Lewis, a woman of African American and Native American heritage who had not been enslaved, captures that same euphoria in marble in Forever Free (which she sculpted in Rome, under the influence of classical and Renaissance art). For her figures, looking up in gratitude and triumph, as for Horton's narrator, rejoicing in song, freedom promises a glorious future.

Others were not so sure, as we see in the WPA slave narratives and the Winslow Homer painting. The painting has carried three rather ominous titles—At the Cabin Door, Captured Liberators, and Near Andersonville—the last referring to the notorious Confederate prisoner-of-war camp in Georgia. Painted after emancipation, the work is layered with irony. Homer seems to ask, What lies beyond the cabin door for the formerly enslaved when they live among those who once captured their liberators? And what do we learn from the former slaves who, although interviewed seventy years after their emancipation, affirm that they "recollect all that like yesterday"? Essential texts for beginning this seminar. 7 pages.


Discussion questions
  1. How does Horton portray liberation in "Song of Liberty"? How does he differentiate liberation in the first two stanzas from freedom in the last stanza?
  2. How does Lewis portray liberation in her sculpture Forever Free (also known as Free at Last)? Contrast her portrayal with the slave narratives.
  3. Why did Lewis include the figure of a woman in Forever Free? What does her posture suggest? What do the body and posture of the male figure suggest?
  4. How does Homer (who was white) represent the slave's predicament through the painting's structure, color, light/dark contrast, symbolism (note the gourds at her feet), and his choice of a young woman as the subject?
  5. When does freedom take meaning for each of the interviewed former slaves? How do they agree and differ on its significance in their lives?
  6. How do they judge the effect of seven decades on their memories of emancipation?

» Link


Topic Framing Questions
  •  What challenges did the newly freed African Americans face immediately after the Civil War?
  •  What did freedom mean to the newly freed?
  •  What resources did recently emancipated African Americans possess as they assumed life as free men and women?
  •  How did African Americans define and exercise power in their first years of freedom?




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