Labor, Kinship, and the 19th-Century Worlds of Asa Valentine

Friday, January 5, 2018: 3:50 PM
Maryland Suite C (Marriott Wardman Park)
Joan L Bryant, Syracuse University
“The Property of Asa Valentine February the 20th 1845”

These words introduce a journal begun by a twenty-one year old laborer. In some three hundred entries, he documented jobs he secured and funds he received and disbursed during eighteen years of work. Valentine was a free man of color in Lower Alloways Creek, a rural Salem County township along New Jersey’s Delaware Bay. His volume - never referenced or published - is a fragmentary record of the labor and family networks that defined his worlds. It is a starting point for mapping the contours of Black life on the edge of the free North.

The paper uses digital tools to map how Valentine navigated freedom. It creates possibilities for rethinking its meanings by shifting the geographic locus from well-known urban spaces to a rural coastal arena. Inhabiting this world meant engaging slavery. Valentine’s labor included farming and working on sloops that ventured south. Kidnappers brought the institution’s trappings to the region. Fugitives sought aid from anti-slavery Quakers who controlled shoreline wharves. These competing factors complicate the meanings of freedom in liminal spaces.

Valentine’s journal suggests fascinating ways of analyzing how kinship and racial categories designate and situate place. He had ties to inter-marrying families established in New Jersey before the American Revolution. They were variously classified as mulatto, colored, and black. This clan, dispersed across adjacent counties, is associated with a village identifiable on local maps. However, the community’s name references people linked by ‘blood.’ Mapping Valentine’s worlds thus requires interpreting how racial designations in the region constructed fictive space.

How does liminal space delineate freedom? How do relationships create racialized collective space? Analyzing Valentine’s journal situates these questions in the life of an obscure nineteenth-century American who left fragments of his place in worlds of work and kinship.