Justice  /  Book Review

The Promise of Freedom

A new history of the Civil War and Reconstruction examines the ways in which Black Americans formed networks of self-reliance in their pursuit of emancipation.

The Emancipation Circuit offers a powerful reimagining of the networks that helped to secure Black freedom during the Civil War and Reconstruction: It is a history about enslaved people’s efforts to free themselves and about their local struggles to give substance to their legal emancipation, as well as a mapping of the geography that enabled their achievements and the circuits that spread their political goals like pollen in the wind. Davis chronicles the myriad kinds of organizing and institution-building that freed people undertook, emphasizing that creating a “mobilized public” for these grassroots efforts on several fronts enabled freed people to make serious progress even in the face of great repression. Though many of these advances were eventually rolled back, and several of their greatest ambitions went unrealized, the ideas that freed people developed during Reconstruction—the eight-hour workday, an end to workplace violence, universal suffrage, and more—laid the foundation for later transformations of American society.

Like many other recent histories of Reconstruction, The Emancipation Circuit is a testament to the achievements of these formerly enslaved people. Of special note is Davis’s attention to Black families. Liberated from slavery, Black people worked to rebuild and maintain kinship ties. Many dedicated themselves to reuniting with long-lost loved ones. Joining such historians as Heather Williams in Help Me to Find My People, Davis reminds us that these efforts were both personal and political: They included winning for Black women “the right to be the heads of households and have custody of their children, dissolve a problematic partnership…earn equal wages, and, along with all others, have equal protection under the law.” Reconstruction was not only a period that sought to undo anti-Blackness; it also worked to end the kinds of sexism that assailed Black women in ways that, had it been successful, would have benefited all American women and families.

Like many other achievements of the Civil War and Reconstruction era, the promise of these struggles has yet to be fully realized. As Dorothy Roberts argued two decades ago in Shattered Bonds and again in this year’s Torn Apart, the child welfare system today disproportionately surveils Black people and in particular Black women. It also disproportionately separates them from their children, both of which demonstrate that the institution operates less to produce child safety and more to police Black families. And it is here that Davis’s chronicling of the Reconstruction efforts to secure Black family autonomy comes to the fore: In an era in which the state has consistently policed Black families and Black women, one path forward, her book suggests, is through a renewed set of Emancipation Circuits: through networks of Black parents (both those directly impacted by the system and otherwise), prison abolitionists, and more. An abolitionist politics—a politics in pursuit of actual and material liberation—will need not a state purporting to be beneficent so much as people working to erect new structures that provide a real basis for freedom.