Duane’s important new study began in the archives where she was captivated with the records of the New York African Free Schools. That research led her to James McCune Smith and Henry Highland Garnet—two of the most influential Black leaders of the antebellum period, who were also among the schools’ most prominent alumna. Although studies of McCune Smith’s and Garnet’s lives exist, they have not been placed into dialogue with one another as Duane does in this book. Duane illuminates the meaning and significance of Black childhood to these men, both real and imagined, in their adult lives. The meaning of freedom, citizenship, and the role of education, as inextricably linked to Black childhood, fundamentally shaped McCune Smith’s and Garnet’s politics, testifying to the centrality of Black children in the fight for Black liberation. The strength of the book lies in Duane’s study of the Black leaders’ lives through the analytical lens of Black childhood.
Duane argues that McCune Smith’s and Garnet’s lives are crucial to answering the question of how to imagine and secure a Black child’s liberation in early America. Education was central to this mission. At a time when whites propagated notions of Black inferiority, African Americans believed education was a means to refute racist ideas and work toward liberation and equality. For African Americans, the promise of education was constantly stymied by the politics of chattel slavery and its concomitant racism, which included whites assigning child-like dependency to all Black people to “justify” Black subjugation. McCune Smith and Garnet navigated this dilemma as children and sought lasting remedies to it as adults. Curiously, Duane spends little time contextualizing the history of African-American education in the 1820s and early 1830s when Garnet and McCune Smith pursued their studies. Instead, the views of white subscribers to the American Colonization Society (acs), who controlled the New York Free African Schools and believed educated Black people must leave the country, figure more prominently in the early chapters. The juxtaposition between competing views on race and education would have enriched the analysis. In this environment, the two young Black men born to enslaved parents came of age and had formative experiences.
After receiving their educations, Garnet and McCune Smith’s visions for Black liberation diverged tactically. Upon returning to New York City after earning his medical degree, McCune Smith became the physician at the Colored Orphan Asylum where he cared for sick Black children and strove to provide a path for them to lead fulfilling lives in the United States. Duane shows how McCune Smith’s work on behalf of Black children shaped his refutations of scientific racism. An illuminating section about Omo, a Black child, about whom McCune Smith wrote to refute racist ideas about illness and Blackness is particularly fascinating. McCune Smith also believed in the efficacy of abolitionist transformation of American society.
Garnet’s staunch advocacy of Black emigrationism by the 1850s put him at odds with McCune Smith and other Black leaders like Frederick Douglass. As a teacher and minister, Garnet helped to shape a generation of African-American youth. His family also aided young fugitive slaves, marking the significance of Black childhood in Garnet’s adult life. Duane’s ability to weave the motif of home and fugitive flight throughout the analysis makes the work a tremendous addition not only to childhood studies but to American studies generally.
The work is less successful, however, as a historical analysis. For example, the distinctions between the racial politics of the acs and Black emigrationism and the reasons for the convergence of the movements in a specific historical moment warrants deeper engagement. Moreover, the portrayal of Garnet’s need to escape history because of its link to slavery could have benefited from nuance to include his engagement with the history of Black people, which could reveal the multiple functions of history in his life. These quibbles notwithstanding, this important contribution to Black childhood studies and its understanding of the lives of McCune Smith and Garnet merits a wide readership.