WMU News

New book traces roots of African-American celebrations

Nov. 13, 2003

KALAMAZOO--The importance of African-American celebrations that commemorate new freedoms is the subject of a recently published book by Dr. Mitch Kachun, assistant professor of history at Western Michigan University.

"Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915" was published by the University of Massachusetts Press. The book examines black freedom celebrations beginning with those that marked the 1808 abolition of the transatlantic slave trade and continuing through to the fiftieth anniversary of U.S. emancipation.

But the book is much more than tracing a history of dates and places. Kachun focuses his research on the functions the celebrations served. In particular, he isolates three: congregation, education and agitation.

"Though there were concentrations of blacks in the cities, many lived in small towns and rural areas," says Kachun. "Celebrations provided an opportunity to establish business and social connections, and a chance for thousands of blacks to be together in one place."

Because literacy rates were low in the early-19th century, the celebrations gave leaders who delivered speeches opportunities to educate the masses.

"These speeches served as history lessons about the past, and also raised awareness about the current political climate," says Kachun, who notes that the speeches also served as a way to recruit the listeners to activism. "It gave leaders such as Frederick Douglass, who was probably the most in-demand speaker at these celebrations during the 19th century, the opportunity to speak to all facets of the black community. Leaders would lay out a political agenda and recruit from the upper, middle and lower classes, the literate and non-literate, and men and women all at once."

A WMU faculty member since 2001, Kachun teaches history with an emphasis on African-American history and historical memory. He earned a bachelor's degree from Pennsylvania State University in 1971, a master's degree from Illinois State University in 1990 and a doctoral degree from Cornell University in 1997.

"Festivals of Freedom" is 360 pages in hardcover and is available through Amazon.com and the University of Massachusetts Press Web site at <www.umass.edu/umpress> for $39.95.

Media contact: Matt Gerard, 269 387-8400, matthew.gerard@wmich.edu

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