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Anna Mae Duane
University of Connecticut

Performing Freedom at The New York African Free School

My paper analyzes the performances put on by students during the 1810’s and 20's at the New York African Free School. The NYAFS was established in 1787, when slavery was integral to New York's culture and economy, and was absorbed into the public school system nearly a decade after New York's 1827 manumission law went into effect. My paper draws from the written scripts, poems, and artwork of the school’s students to explore how African American children imagined their own roles as free people and how those roles were mediated by the complex mix of benevolence and condescension that underwrote their education.

The NYAFS was one of the first institutions in the city that needed to come up with practical answers to the questions raised by the prospect of manumission. The years between the American Revolution and manumission in 1827 saw a fraught debate over the role of free blacks in New York City, a debate in which both whites and blacks participated. Students at the NYAFS were an integral part of this dialogue, as they literally performed freedom--on a stage, for a mixed race audience, including school administrators, benefactors and parents. Once a year, students were expected to participate in an "Examination Day," during which they would perform skits and dialogues.  White teachers and administrators often scripted these texts, but, occasionally, the students wrote the material themselves. This archive provides valuable insight into how the embedded metaphors of blackness and childhood--forged in the Enlightenment era and materially present in the words scripted for these children to perform--mediated the curriculum and expectations of early African American education. Gaining understanding of the structure of early black education, in turn, allows for new ways of thinking about the formation of black community and identity that emerged in response and resistance to those early lessons.


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