I, Charlotte Forten, Black and Free Essay - Critical Context

Polly Longsworth

Critical Context

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.