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How did Africans become 'blacks' in the Americas? Becoming Free, Becoming Black tells the story of enslaved and free people of color who used the law to claim freedom and citizenship for themselves and their loved ones. Their communities challenged slaveholders' efforts to make blackness synonymous with slavery.


Looking closely at three slave societies - Cuba, Virginia, and Louisiana - Alejandro de la Fuente and Ariela J. Gross demonstrate that the law of freedom - not slavery - established the meaning of blackness in law. Contests over freedom determined whether and how it was possible to move from slave to free status, and whether claims to citizenship would be tied to racial identity. Laws regulating the lives and institutions of free people of color created the boundaries between black and white, the rights reserved to white people, and the degradations imposed only on black people.


Praise for Becoming Free, Becoming Black

“At a moment when ‘Send Them Back’ has reemerged as a nativist rallying cry, Becoming Free, Becoming Black is a brilliantly lucid guide to the deep history of how race and ethnic origin came to be potent ciphers for civic belonging. …De la Fuente and Gross show that brutality lay not merely in the imposition of slavery, but in the creation of racial regimes ranking black bodies even once freed from bondage. If enslavement is construed as an external political constraint, the project of freedom becomes focused on unshackling bodies from those confines. But if white means free and black means slave, then political status is embodied, innate and inescapable. …To this day, the legacy of free-but-not-full-citizen delimits quietly powerful hierarchies in our varying capacities to travel, vote, mix socially, run a business, hold public office, and intermarry. This indispensable book shows how knowing the past might aid us to intelligently reform our future.” —Patricia J. Williams, columnist, The Nation magazine

“In this incisive and spell-binding study, Alejandro de la Fuente and Ariela Gross meticulously investigate the archives of the ‘legal regimes of slavery and race’ in the culturally disparate locations of Cuba, Louisiana, and Virginia, thus exposing the differences and similarities between Spanish, French, and English approaches to manumission and interracial relationships. In addition, the authors brilliantly focus on the bottom-up efforts of the enslaved to gain freedom, thus exposing how these ‘unpredictable twists and turns’ established the meaning of blackness in law. Not only an important legal analysis, Becoming Free, Becoming Black tells many fascinating stories of heroic efforts to attain freedom through legal regimes.”
- Henry Louise Gates, Alphonse University Professor, Harvard University

“Becoming Free, Becoming Black is a brilliant study of the making of race in the New World. Deeply researched, insightful, and smoothly written, this book is a major contribution to the scholarly literature on slavery and the way it shaped, and was shaped by, attitudes about people of African descent.”
- Annette Gordon Reed

"To what can we attribute the distinct racial ideologies that emerged in different slaveholding societies in the Americas? In this rich and innovative comparative study, de la Fuente and Gross emphasize the role of emergence of communities of free persons of African descent, and their evolution over time ... As slavery itself was abolished, these prior differences laid the groundwork for divergent experiences of access to the rights of citizenship. This is a provocative and important book."
- Rebecca J. Scott, Charles Gibson Distinguished Professor of History and Professor of Law, University of Michigan

“In Cuba of 1860, many persons of color who purchased their freedom lived alongside slaves; while in Louisiana and Virginia free people of color had almost disappeared and to be black was to be enslaved. The difference was in the law and custom regulating freedom—law made by many hands, including those of slaves themselves. This book, based on meticulous archival research and brilliantly reasoned and written, is comparative legal history at its finest.”
Robert Gordon, Stanford University


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