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To ‘Joy My Freedom, by Tera Hunter.

February 8, 2012

To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War, Tera W. Hunter. Harvard University Press (1998), 322 pages

Tera Hunter has written an excellent book, one which is both scholarly and engaging for non-scholars. She writes about black women in Atlanta from the Civil War through World War I and the beginnings of their “great migration” to northern cities. Throughout most that period, over 90% of black women in Atlanta worked as domestic servants, making it very relevant for Real Help.

As Amanda and Amy have already reported, T’Joy My Freedom is an appealing book. Hunter’s descriptions of particular women and events give the book an immediacy and make it an enjoyable read for a wide range of readers. Her stories of black women scandalizing white observers with their bright clothes and parasols, the little-known strike of Atlanta washerwomen, and the rise of black women as blues singers give readers a sense of women not beaten down by the limitations of their lives. In addition, her meticulous research and writing ensure that other historians respected her work.

Hunter’s approach is to place the black women of Atlanta in the context of the emergence of the city after the Civil War. As she describes, reconstruction in Atlanta and throughout the south involved the shift from slavery to wage labor. Atlanta was a new kind of southern city based on railroads and manufacturing rather than slavery, yet it was always a place determined to retain control over blacks. Through Hunter’s sources we can see the emerging black neighborhoods, the palatial mansions of rich whites, and Decatur Street where new entertainment enterprises were emerging. Gradually, we also see the development of virulent anti-black attitudes taking shape and becoming the legal limitations of the Jim Crow south where blacks were threatened with violence and segregation was the norm. Ironically, black women were still expected to work in the homes of whites even as fears of what they brought into those homes grew. By the time of World War I, the possibility of jobs and greater breathing space offered black women and men alternatives to what Atlanta offered, and they began to move to northern cities.

In addition, Hunter places her narrative about black women in Atlanta in the context of other historical writing. For almost a century, U.S. historians trusted white Southern historians to “know their own history” and accepted their stories of blacks being “inferior” and threatening “civilization.” Over the past thirty years that scenario has been challenged by revisionist historians looking at the period from the perspective of blacks. Telling their side of the story has revealed the absurdity of many statements by the white supremacists. While much of the revisionist history has focused on the political and economic roles of black men, Hunter extends the story with her discussion of black urban women.

In Atlanta between the Civil War and World War One, no black women wrote lengthy accounts of their own lives. Gaining literacy was their priority, not keeping diaries. Some of the words and stories of black women from the Reconstruction period have survived in the records of groups like the Freedman’s Bureau and the American Missionary Society. The title of Hunter’s book, in fact, is taken from one such account. Given the scarcity of writing by black women, Hunter has creatively used a wide range of primary sources in researching her story. As she says in her introduction, she used

diaries [by white men and women], household account books, newspapers, census data, municipal records, city directories, personal correspondence [also of whites], oral interviews, government reports, business records, photographs, political cartoons, and organizational records [of blacks].

Recognizing the biases present in all her sources, Hunter uses them with skill and sensitivity. For example, instead of accepting white’s assessments that black women lacked the ability to work consistently at the same job, she interprets their frequently walking out on their employers as their way of ensuring a measure of independence and creating time to attend to the needs of their own families.

With Hunter’s T’Joy, we see the value of using a wide range of sources and of putting the story of particular groups in the context of larger historical and theoretical debates. Race, class, and gender are discussed. Using contemporary theory, Hunter discusses dance halls and black women’s bodies as “contested”, with whites seeking more complete control over those whom they believed they had still rights of ownership. In this regard, Hunter’s book is a contrast to Elizabeth Clark Lewis, Living In, Living Out, where the narratives seldom reach beyond the oral history which Lewis collected.

Sometimes the point is made that meeting academic standards for research and placing black women and others in a larger context weakens or compromises their stories. I can see the danger of this happening. Yet there is much to be gained by looking at particular experiences in the relation to the whole, as Hunter does in T’Joy. Compared to only reading the words of black women, hearing the actual words of white employers gives readers a shaper sense of why black women were angry.

By all means everyone should read this book, even if they read nothing else about African-American women’s history.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 8, 2012 6:03 pm

    Love your fantastic and thorough review of this one. Such an interesting read, and wow the research is impressive isn’t it??

    • February 10, 2012 3:43 pm

      Thanks. Do I need to do anything else about the Lewis introduction and questions?

  2. February 16, 2012 1:08 pm

    Ohhh: now I want to read this right away!


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