The Meaning of Age in American Slavery and FreedomUniversity of Pennsylvania Press Early American Studies
Would there have been a Frederick Douglass if it were not for Betsy Bailey, the grandmother who raised him? Would Harriet Jacobs have written her renowned autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, if her grandmother, a free black woman named Molly Horniblow, had not enabled Jacobs’ escape from slavery?
In Black Elders, Frederick C. Knight explores the experiences of African Americans with aging and in old age during the eras of slavery and emancipation. Though slavery put a premium on young labor, elders worked as caregivers, domestics, cooks, or midwives and performed other tasks in the margins of Southern and Northern economies. Looking at black families, churches, mutual aid societies, and homes for the aged, Knight demonstrates the pivotal role of elders in the history of African American community formation through Reconstruction.
Drawing on a wide array of printed and archival sources, including slave narratives, plantation records, letters, diaries, meeting minutes, and state and federal archives, Knight also examines how blacks and whites, men and women, the young and the old developed competing ideas about age and aging, differences that shaped social relations in coastal West and West Central Africa, the Atlantic and domestic slave trades, colonial and antebellum Southern slave societies, and emancipation in the North and South.
Black Elders offers a unique window into the individual and collective lives of African Americans, the day-to-day struggles they waged around their experiences of aging, and how they drew upon these resources to define the meaning of family, community, and freedom.
"By centering the politics of age and eldership from the height of the Atlantic slave trade through the Civil War, Black Elders offers a new and important contribution to the study of Black life in slavery and freedom."—Erica Armstrong Dunbar, author of Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge
"With the publication of Black Elders, Frederick C. Knight has made a remarkable contribution to the study of slavery and freedom, introducing ‘the politics of age’ as a principal lens of analysis. Beginning the story in West Africa and following it into North America via the transatlantic trade, he shows how the African-descended, through slavery, post-emancipation, and even into more contemporary times, fought to retain, reclaim, and refashion the saliency and meaning of ‘the elders’ within their community. Drawing from a range of primary sources, Knight allows us to hear the voices of those long rendered voiceless. It is a compelling story that Knight tells well, skillfully and movingly. Black Elders is a must read."—Michael A. Gomez, author of African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa
"Spanning continents and centuries, Black Elders is the first comprehensive history of Black elderhood as lived experience and cultural ideal. Frederick C. Knight offers a transformative history of slavery and freedom that recognizes the importance of Black elders as leaders who held together multigenerational families, spurred community development, and passed down wisdom. This extensively researched and beautifully written book should be required reading for everyone interested in African American history and culture, age studies, or what it means to grow old."—Corinne T. Field, author of The Struggle for Equal Adulthood: Gender, Race, Age, and the Fight for Citizenship in Antebellum America