Historical Perspective

A The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850

One of the central events of the novel-Sethe’s attack on her children-is described as “her rough response to the Fugitive Bill.” Prior to 1850, U.S. law permitted slave owners to attempt to recover escaped slaves, but state authorities were under no obligation to assist them. Many Northerners saw aiding and protecting fugitive slaves as one way to combat the evil of slavery. Escaped slaves who settled in free states were therefore relatively safe from capture, since their abolitionist communities rarely cooperated with slave owners. This sense of safety was jeopardized by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.

As America expanded her borders, slavery was a continuing source of controversy. The addition of territory acquired in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 sparked heated debates over the status of slavery in these new lands. When Pennsylvania Representative David Wilmot proposed that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part” of the territory acquired from Mexico, Southern states strongly objected. The Wilmot Proviso was defeated, and Kentucky congressman Henry Clay brokered a new deal. The resulting Compromise of 1850 was a series of bills designed to satisfy both North and South. As well as admitting California as a free state and allowing Utah and New Mexico to decide the slavery issue for themselves, the Compromise of 1850 enacted a much stricter fugitive slave law. Under this law, fugitive slaves were denied a jury trial, facing a court-appointed commissioner instead. This commissioner received ten dollars for certifying delivery of an alleged slave, but only five dollars when he refused it. And not only did federal officials take part in the capture and return of fugitives, but they could compel citizens to help enforce the law-and jail or fine them if they refused.

Anti-slavery forces were outraged by this new law, and often took matters into their own hands to combat it. In cities such as Boston, Detroit, Milwaukee, Syracuse, New York, and Christiana, Pennsylvania, mobs rescued alleged fugitives from their captors and in some cases even killed slave owners. Less confrontational forms of protest increased as well, as the new law inspired an increase in organized assistance to slaves such as the Underground Railroad. In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe was inspired by the Fugitive Slave Law to write her classic anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Despite these very visible activities protesting the law, most Northerners complied with it. Of an estimated two hundred African Americans arrested during its enforcement, only twenty were released or rescued; the remainder returned to slavery.

B The Rise of the Ku Klux Klan

Even after the abolition of slavery ended the threat of being returned to servitude, African Americans still found their rights and even lives in danger. Many white Southerners found Reconstruction Act of 1867-the Republican government’s plan for returning the South to the Union-difficult to swallow. This act replaced the mostly all-white state governments created after the war with five military districts. Each district had 20,000 troops, commanded by a Union general. Southern states were forced to grant new rights to African Americans, and more than a dozen black congressmen and two senators were elected. In response to what they perceived as Republican oppression, white Southerners formed a secret society whose aim was to intimidate these unwanted administrators. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) grew from a social club into a terrorist organization that used arson, beatings, and even murder to achieve their ends.

Klan activity stepped up after the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed all men the right to vote, was passed in 1870. Not only did this amendment ensure the voting rights of Southern blacks, it expanded the right to vote to African Americans in Northern states. Klan activity was similarly expanded, as its violence spread to northern states. In Beloved, Paul D considers Cincinnati “infected by the Klan,” which he calls “desperately thirsty for black blood.” The KKK terrorized African Americans to keep them from voting, often with great success. Many African Americans were murdered, and their killers had little fear of prosecution. To combat this violence, Congress passed the Ku Klux Act in 1871, which strengthened the penalties for interfering with elections. This led to almost three thousand indictments that year, and the 1872 elections were relatively peaceful. Nevertheless, the Klan had demonstrated their strength, and after the last federal troops left the South in 1877, white supremacists were free to establish a deeply segregated society that openly oppressed African Americans until the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

C Toni Morrison and the Post-Aesthetic Movement

Mirroring their increased presence in politics, African Americans also became highly visible as writers during the 1960s. Harlem Renaissance writers such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston had been prominent in the 1920s, while Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison achieved both literary and popular acclaim in the 1940s and 1950s. Many of these works were popular because of the way they were able to interpret the black experience for a white audience. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, writers within the “Black Aesthetic Movement” attempted to produce works of art that would be meaningful to the black masses. Writers such as Amiri Baraka, Haki R. Madhubuti, and Sonia Sanchez created works which highlighted the disparity between blacks and whites and affirmed the value of African American culture, thus creating a sense of pride and identity in the black community.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, however, many African American writers chose a slightly different approach. Instead of focusing on the differences between blacks and whites in America-and thus placing themselves within or against a white social context-these “Post-Aesthetic” writers used a wholly African American context for their work. Instead of looking to the outside world for solutions or validation, the African Americans in these works found answers within their own families or communities. Toni Morrison is considered one of the most prominent writers within this Post-Aesthetic movement, which includes such authors as Alice Walker, Kristin Hunter, and John Edgar Wideman. By emphasizing the importance of family and community in dealing with life’s challenges, Morrison’s Beloved provides a notable example of this literary movement.

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