To Walk About in Freedom: The Long Emancipation of Priscilla Joyner

Norton. Mar. 2022. 256p. ISBN 9781324001829. $28.95. HIST
Prize-winning historian Emberton (Univ. at Buffalo; Beyond Redemption) writes a deft and revealing account of the life of Priscilla Joyner (1858–1944), a biracial woman of white and Black parentage. Joyner was born during the last days of slavery in North Carolina, raised by a white slaveholding woman, and chose to live as a Black woman as she navigated the confusions and limits of her freedom through Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era without losing hope and purpose. Late in life, Joyner recounted her experiences in an oral history (part of the 1930s Federal Writers’ Project Slave Narrative Collection), in which she aimed to show the uneven, always contested, and varied routes Black people took to define and defend emancipation on their terms. Emberton’s book analyzes and validates Joyner’s oral history, and adds rich historical context to fill in and flesh out the lives of Joyner and other Black Americans of that era, who discussed what slavery and freedom meant and made their way by building their own communities through family, church, and school. In Emberton’s telling, it is clear that Joyner owned her own story, and thus herself.
VERDICT Emberton’s sensitive and sympathetic recovery of Joyner’s story speaks volumes on what freedom meant and might mean, and why the best way to know a person is to listen to and learn from the stories they choose to tell.
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