Reckoning with Freedom: Legacies of Exclusion, Dehumanization, and Black Resistance in the Rhetoric of the Freedmen's Bureau
Lu, Jessica H.
Parry-Giles, Shawn J
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Charged with facilitating the transition of former slaves from bondage to freedom, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (known colloquially as the Freedmen’s Bureau) played a crucial role in shaping the experiences of black and African Americans in the years following the Civil War. Many historians have explored the agency’s administrative policies and assessed its pragmatic effectiveness within the social, political, and economic milieu of the emancipation era. However, scholars have not adequately grappled with the lasting implications of its arguments and professed efforts to support freedmen. Therefore, this dissertation seeks to analyze and unpack the rhetorical textures of the Bureau’s early discourse and, in particular, its negotiation of freedom as an exclusionary, rather than inclusionary, idea. By closely examining a wealth of archival documents— including letters, memos, circular announcements, receipts, congressional proceedings, and newspaper articles—I interrogate how the Bureau extended antebellum freedom legacies to not merely explain but police the boundaries of American belonging and black inclusion. Ultimately, I contend that arguments by and about the Bureau contributed significantly to the reconstruction of a post-bellum racial order that affirmed the racist underpinnings of the social contract, further contributed to the dehumanization of former slaves, and prompted black people to resist the ongoing assault on their freedom. This project thus provides a compelling case study that underscores how rhetorical analysis can help us better understand the ways in which seemingly progressive ideas can be used to justify exercises of power and domination. Additionally, this interpretation of the Bureau’s primary role as a mechanism of supervision, rather than support, sheds light on the history of unjust practices that persist today in American race relations. Finally, this study affirms how black people have persevered in inventive and innovative ways to disrupt the pervasive discourse that seeks to destroy them.