Cover Image: Symbols of Freedom

Symbols of Freedom

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Calvin looks at how enslaved people took the language and symbols of freedom that the white people in the United States of America used from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War to celebrate and separate itself from the connection to Europe and reveal how untrue they actually were. Enslaved people also used them to rebel and claim the full freedom these symbols supposedly were meant to represent.

This was well researched. I particularly appreciated how Calvin showed not just the big moments and speeches most people are aware of but also individual and small groups acts of rebellion that showed resistance to slavery. People did not just endure and survive forced captivity but they resisted in many different and innovative ways.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest opinion.

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Clavin examines the most American idea, freedom, through its early symbols, songs, and documents of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and through the lens of enslaved and free Black Americans. A fascinating analysis and insight into this fraught period of American history, Clavin’s exploration of documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the “Star-Spangled Banner” and the language of exclusionary freedom adds another dimension to the popular understanding and interpretation of these American documents, while his analysis of symbols like the American flag, among other monuments and memorials, seeks to understand the visual symbolism and representation of this concept of exclusionary freedom. Not all is dark in this nonfiction book, however, as Clavin later explores the appropriation of these symbols, documents, language, monuments, and memorials by Black Americans and how these exclusive symbols and language became symbols of hope, patriotism, and unity for the enslaved and free Black American populations. Clavin’s analysis is fascinating and engaging, and his prose and organization of this book presents his facts, images, and analyses in a comprehensive and straightforward way for all readers. This book is a fascinating insight into the founding and antebellum periods of American history and the symbolism of the two eras.

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This was a slow read for me. I’m into history so that kept me going. But overall it was kind of boring. It’s written almost like a textbook/book used for research. It was good as far as historical context and learning about how these American symbols mean different things to different people and even during different times. I don’t think I would recommend this to anyone unless they were writing a paper.

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From the introduction:
Interrogating the impact of national language and symbols comes with some risk...
The aversion to nationalism derives largely from its relationship with racism... According to historian Anthony Marx, efforts to codify racism that intended to unite White people unintentionally brought Black people together. They moreover emboldened them to challenge their oppressors.

Enslaver versus Abolitionist--this text and the United States grapple with the context of these oppositional forces that embody the fundamental contradictions of "the land of the free and the home of the brave."

By itself, the intense study of the July 5th, 1852 speech by Frederick Douglass is reason enough to read this book. The many images from pamphlets and other historical documents, plus the introduction, seven chapters across two parts: Contesting and Fighting, and a "Fighting for Old Glory" epilogue, acknowledgments, notes, index, and previous non-fiction titles mentioned in about the author are each worthy of a close reading and rigorous contemplation.

The experiences of lesser celebrated but very accomplished New York State Underground Railroad conductor Jermain Wesley Loguen, self-liberated Israel Campbell, Elizabeth Blakesly, and others are offered as examples of the ways in which the language and symbols of freedom are interpreted as influenced by time, place, person, circumstances, and intention.

Complementary reading with I Can't Wait to Call You My Wife... by Rita Roberts and The Grimkes by Kerri Greenidge.

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Symbols of Freedom: Slavery and Resistance Before the Civil War by Professor Matthew Clavin presents several American traditions, speeches or symbols and how they shaped slave resistance and anti-slavery activism in the United States from the establishment of Washington, D.C. to the eve of Civil War.

Clavin, concludes “as long as there has been a United States, there have been African Americans who were willing to fight and die for it.” (Page 208). This despite living in a nation that has viewed them as inferior, less worthy of life or opportunities, less likely to be patriotic. Clavin’s book thematically shows the many times these beliefs have been false.

Across seven chapters, Clavin begins with discussion of two key symbols or traditions: the American Flag and July 4th. The latter focusing on Frederick Douglas’s speech “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” From there, in part II, Clavin shifts the discussion to specific moments and there effect on encouraging protest, rebellion and eventual revolution. At the center of many of these events is the open lines of the Declaration of Independence “…all men are created equal…” or the chose of July 4th as the date of action. Much repetition and adaptation of Patrick Henry’s “Give me Liberty or give me death” is suggested through escaped slave memoirs or Abolitionist publications. The closing chapter looks to the life and attempted insurrection of John Brown, describing his philosophy and his new constitution copied of the old, but with clear changes to the question of slavery. The work ends with a brief coda of African American contributions to the Civil War, in particular the achievement of Sergeant William H Carney at the battle of Fort Wagner, South Carolina; whose photo graces the cover.

Clavin has carried out extensive research and often includes illustrations or photos of the individuals highlighted in the text, where that imagery was available. Clavin also is clear on what is known and unknown. Where possible, he has drawn from the written record to voice the reasons why slaves fought or sought freedom. Where he cannot, he does offer some speculation, but always labels this as such, stating that there were no documents or often interest in exploring these viewpoints.

Amply illustrated, Clavin provides a historical investigation of the anti-slavery movement and slave resistance in the antebellum United States that emphasizes the inherent hypocrisy of a nation founded for freedom allowing the existence of slavery.

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Symbols of Freedom looks at symbols through the lens of abolition, slavery, and enslaved folks. Clavin does a fantastic job of laying out the arguments in a persuasive and easy to follow way.

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Totally solid, readable book that makes sensible claims about nationalism and race. While not a revolutionary book, what stands out is some very thoughtful visual culture interventions. Images are nicely illustrated and author makes the most of his thesis when engaging with images and the power they leverage. Worth a read to those looking for a thoughtful, paced inquiry into race and nationalism.

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I have been on a nonfiction kick recently and this one stood out for many reasons. I loved the honesty and emotion. I felt like I was in the moment with the author and I felt like the articulation of the circumstances were easy to understand which I appreciated with such a complex issue.

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Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me this e-ARC. This does not influence my review in any way.

A solid piece of academic research. Clavin presents symbols we all recognize through the lens of slavery, abolition, and enslaved individuals themselves. By the end of the book, I was able to easily grasp the argument and find agreement in the sources. As a history major, I've learned that historiography is making an argument and persuading people to believe it and Clavin did just that! Sources that I was familiar with were broken down further to show details that I would have never even considered to be attached to the symbols of our nation.

All in all, a great read, especially for scholars focused on American history and the rise of right-wing politics with their reclamation of symbols we are seeing today.

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