John Marks is Historian and Public History Administrator for the American Association for State and Local History. This interview is based on his new book, Black Freedom in the Age of Slavery: Race, Status, and Identity in the Urban Americas (University of South Carolina Press, 2020).
JF: What led you to write Black Freedom in the Age of Slavery?
JM: The idea for this project began developing for me in graduate school. In reading widely about the history of race and slavery in the Atlantic World, I began to recognize patterns in the lived experiences of African-descended people in urban spaces that often went unmentioned. Historians of the United States almost never talked about parallels with Latin American society; Latin Americanists, for their part, often referenced older, or more abstract, examples from US histories when drawing broad comparisons. A deep engagement with current scholarship for both regions, however, revealed parallels I just couldn’t ignore: namely, the opportunity for free people of color living in cities before the end of slavery to carve out spaces of autonomy for themselves, claim a degree of distinction within their communities, and conduct themselves in ways that defied white expectation—and often the law. Recognizing major differences in law, culture, and attitudes towards racial difference across the Americas, I wanted to understand with greater precision the ways African-descended people navigated daily life in these places. As I began researching, I recognized as well that explicitly comparative history in some ways represented an unfulfilled promise of the turn to the “Atlantic World” as a perspective for analyzing the history of the United States and other American societies. Few scholars had conducted the kind of careful social history research in service of a transnational and comparative project I thought was necessary to really understand local dynamics. Once I realized such an approach could make a unique contribution to our understanding of race and slavery, there was no turning back.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Black Freedom in the Age of Slavery?
JM: Throughout the urban Americas before the end of slavery, free people of color relentlessly pursued opportunities to improve their circumstances and provide for their families, staking claims to rights, privileges, and distinctions not typically granted to African-descended people. These efforts represented part of an international struggle for Black freedom, as free Black residents in Charleston, Cartagena, and beyond subtly challenged ideologies of white racial supremacy that linked the Americas together and undermined the foundations of white authority in the Atlantic World.
JF: Why do we need to read Black Freedom in the Age of Slavery?
JM: 2020 has revealed for many Americans, especially white Americans, the degree to which racial injustice and inequality are still pervasive and pernicious features of our society. In order to fully understand the persistence of both individual racial prejudice and systemic racism, we need to understand the history of how race has operated and affected the lives of African-descended people. To fully understand that story, we need to at times look at the history of race and slavery from an international perspective.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, free people of African descent in the United States, Colombia, and throughout the Americas had to confront broadly shared notions of white supremacy among the country’s ruling classes in order to advance efforts to provide for themselves, their loved ones, and their communities. Today, anti-Black racism and a wide range of persistent racial inequalities are pervasive from Canada to Chile and everywhere in between. When demonstrations against systemic racism and police violence erupted this summer, they extended to places like Puerto Rico, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and Colombia, in addition to across the United States. These international demonstrations were not just in solidarity with the US, they were protests against the particular, local histories of white supremacist violence and injustice.
Linking the histories of race and slavery in these places, exploring how and when racial dynamics were the same and different, offers new perspective on the histories of the United States, Latin America, and the Atlantic World, and I hope offers some insight into how we should understand efforts to combat white supremacy in the present.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JM: High school was the first time I really recognized that I had an uncommon interest in (and knack for) reading and writing about the past, but it wasn’t until college that I realized it could be a career. As an undergrad at Lynchburg College (now University of Lynchburg), I had the opportunity to pursue several locally-focused research projects, and I grew to enjoy the archive, the search for material, and the process of putting a puzzle together when you’re not really sure if you have all the pieces. As a New Jersey native researching race and slavery in Virginia, I also became keenly aware of regional differences in present-day racial dynamics, and I wanted to know more about how understandings of race developed over time. Moving forward through graduate school and now a career in public history, the way I think about what it means to be an American historian has certainly changed. But I’m as committed as ever to using research, writing, and engagement with the public to better understand the past and think through how it can help us solve problems in the present.
JF: What is your next project?
JM: I’ve got a couple things kicking around that I hope to be able to say more about soon. In both my scholarship and my day job (for the American Association for State and Local History), I’ve been thinking a lot about anniversaries and how historians can use them as opportunities to expand, challenge, and learn from the public’s understandings of history. 2022 will mark the 200th anniversary of the Denmark Vesey conspiracy in Charleston, and 2026 represents the 250th anniversary of the United States. I know planning is underway already for both commemorations, so I’m interested in using those events to think in new ways about the history of race, slavery, and freedom—whether for books, articles, public history projects, or other endeavors.
JF: Thanks, John!