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Race and Antebellum New York City

The Politics of Sympathy

As time progressed, antislavery rhetoric shifted from the logical Enlightenment language of rights and equality to a more religious, emotionally-laden language of sentiment. The strategy of sentimental literature, most famously exploited in Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, sought to further the cause of the slave by gaining the audience's sympathy for the suffering those slaves endured. Drawing from the theories of philosophers like Adam Smith and others, sentimental rhetoric relied on the premise of shared pain. If the description of a slave's suffering was depicted in a moving and convincing fashion, than the reader or listener would, arguably, share the sufferer's distress and be moved to relieve it. Scenes of families being torn apart by slave traders, brutal whippings, and sales at the auction block were staples of the sentimental genre.

Critics of sentimental literature have argued that such a strategy did little to advance the idea that blacks were entitled to the same rights and privileges as white citizens. In order to work effectively, sentimental literature always had to posit the slave as a victim, not as an equal. However, as the undeniable popularity and influence of Uncle Tom's Cabin indicates, sentimental literature did move audiences to raise their voices against the horrors of slavery.1

Many of the performances enacted by the students at the New York African Free School draw on the sentimental tradition. For instance, Margaret Addle's valedictory address (written by white principal Charles C. Andrews) moves sharply from the standard speech of thanks that we might expect from a valedictorian today, to a performance of her horror at the imagined scene of her brother being torn from her on a slave block. A performance so evocative of the pain and suffering of slavery seems peculiarly placed in the midst of a day celebrating the achievements of black New Yorkers who were ostensibly moving on to a life of equality and security made possible through their education. One might surmise that Margaret's scripted speech was calculated to entice support from white audience members who were schooled in viewing black children as victims, rather than victors.

Print transcript of Margaret Addle’s victory address

1 For more on the debate over the efficacy of sentimental rhetoric, see Marianne Noble, The Masochistic Pleasures of Sentimental Literature (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000).