According to Longsworth, Forten spent considerable time searching for the role that she could play in working for justice, freedom, and opportunity for her people. As a free African American in Philadelphia during the mid-nineteenth century, she suffered the indignities and deprivations known to other African Americans, even though her family was esteemed and prosperous. She was aware of the cruelty and suffering inflicted on many slaves, and she realized that the existence of slavery endangered free African Americans as well.
At sixteen, Forten was beginning to explore possible occupations, recognizing at the same time that her background had prepared her for service in the abolitionist movement. Young readers ask similar questions about their own future paths and, like Forten, long to find a life’s work that will fill a need and have value. Longsworth often emphasizes through Forten’s responses that finding meaningful work is difficult; what appears at first to have value may prove disappointing, as did her teaching experience at the Epes Grammar School in Salem in 1856. She frequently suffered from exhaustion and illness during her intervals of teaching at Salem, in 1856, 1859, and 1860. Although she wanted to be useful, and was ambitious in acquiring an unusually thorough education, she was unsure about her direction. Several times she considered becoming an antislavery orator or the writer of a story or novel about slavery. By narrating I, Charlotte Forten, Black and Free as if it were an autobiography, Longsworth is able to personalize adolescent sensibilities through Forten’s feelings.
Forten responded strongly...
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Longsworth writes a first-person narrative that makes it possible for the young adult reader to identify with a free, young, educated African American living in the era of abolitionism. The title I, Charlotte Forten, Black and Free is partly ironic, for no African-American person, free or slave, could be free while the system of slavery existed. Yet Longsworth wants also to show that the condition of free, affluent African Americans like Forten’s family was very far removed from the conditions of the enslaved. Forten could understand the impact of slavery only by meeting former slaves and reading their stories. It is important for young readers to meet Forten not only as a free African American but also as a privileged one, a member of an eminent family that received famous visitors and that provided her with opportunities to study and travel.
Longsworth’s biography has appealed to young adult readers because of the way in which she reveals Forten’s emotions. For example, Forten’s attachment to her cousin, Robert Purvis, and her grief at his death are described. A young woman who dreamed of marriage and longed for excitement, she was keenly disappointed when the planned mission of the First South Carolina Volunteers to set up a school for the regiment in Florida was called off; she had wanted to be involved in that project. The background of Forten’s husband-to-be, told in the epilogue, suggests the complexity of race in the United States. Sarah and Angela Grimké, Southern sisters who became abolitionists, discovered that they had three nephews of whom they had not known—sons of their brother Henry and one of his slaves, Nancy Weston. One of these nephews, Francis Grimké, later a minister in Washington, D.C., would become Forten’s husband.
This multifaceted biography, told as an autobiography, is also a history of abolition, a description of the place of free African Americans in a country practicing slavery, and a recognition of how the freed slaves were able, through intelligence and ambition, to adjust quickly to independence when given the chance.