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Who Speaks for Margaret Garner?

2010
Author:

Mark Reinhardt

Who Speaks for Margaret Garner?

A fascinating documentary history of the fugitive slave case that captivated the nation—and inspired Toni Morrison’s acclaimed novel Beloved.

The story of Margaret Garner famously inspired Toni Morrison’s most celebrated novel, Beloved, but the details of the actual events remain largely unknown. In Who Speaks for Margaret Garner? Mark Reinhardt has assembled the most important primary documents concerning the case and its aftermath, presenting a new perspective on American culture and society on the eve of the Civil War.

Mark Reinhardt’s thoughtful presentation does American identity a tremendous favor. Although the theater may already have introduced Margaret Garner's sensational tragedy, only now can we follow her excruciating transit through competing jurisdictions and contentious representations. Reinhardt grapples honestly with the fine grain of racial subordination on the eve of the Civil War, paying attention to the silences of forgetting as well as the record of remembering.

Nell Irvin Painter, author of Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol

In January 1856, Margaret Garner and her family were at the center of one of the most dramatic and intensely contested fugitive slave cases in the nation’s history. Just hours after escaping slavery in Kentucky and taking refuge in a home in Cincinnati, the Garners were cornered by authorities. As the captors sought to enter the house, Garner killed her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Mary. Reports suggested that she had tried to kill her three other children, too. These events were instantly sensationalized in the media, stimulating heated debates throughout the country: What did it mean that a mother would rather kill her children than see them returned to a life in slavery? What should happen to Margaret Garner? The conflicting answers to these questions exposed the fault lines over slavery within a nation already drifting toward civil war.

While Garner’s story has famously inspired Toni Morrison’s most celebrated novel, Beloved, the details of the actual events remain largely unknown. In Who Speaks for Margaret Garner? Mark Reinhardt has assembled the most important primary documents concerning the case and its aftermath: newspaper accounts of the Garner family’s escape, capture, and trial; sermons; editorials; legislative debates; and literary responses, opening up a new perspective on American culture and society on the eve of the Civil War.

Immersing readers in a wealth of fascinating documentary evidence, this book offers not only a singular exploration of antebellum America’s debates over such contentious issues as slavery and freedom, race and gender, party and region, and law and politics, but also an engrossing introduction to the work of historical and cultural interpretation.

Who Speaks for Margaret Garner?

Mark Reinhardt is professor of American civilization in the Department of Political Science at Williams College. He is the editor of Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain and Kara Walker: Narratives of a Negress, and the author of The Art of Being Free: Taking Liberties with Tocqueville, Marx, and Arendt.

Who Speaks for Margaret Garner?

Mark Reinhardt’s thoughtful presentation does American identity a tremendous favor. Although the theater may already have introduced Margaret Garner's sensational tragedy, only now can we follow her excruciating transit through competing jurisdictions and contentious representations. Reinhardt grapples honestly with the fine grain of racial subordination on the eve of the Civil War, paying attention to the silences of forgetting as well as the record of remembering.

Nell Irvin Painter, author of Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol

Of all the fugitive slave cases, the Margaret Garner case was singular. Reinhardt’s comprehensive volume documents the full panoply of the public argument, in the courts and the popular media, North and South, over the meaning of Garner’s actions as a freedom-seeking slave mother. Who Speaks for Margaret Garner? shows us why any effort to reclaim the ever-elusive Garner today must reckon with those who tried to speak for and against her more than 150 years ago.

William L. Andrews, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Who Speaks for Margaret Garner? echoes with the voices that rose on the Garner family's behalf, from the demotic yells of Cincinnati rioters, the advocacy of nascent feminists such as Lucy Stone, the speeches of Frederick Douglass, and rarefied sermons of the Boston Transcendentalist Theodore Parker.

The Times Literary Supplement

An excellent introduction to politics, gender issues, slavery, racism, psychology of crime, and more, Who Speaks for Margaret Garner? should be looked to as an excellent resource for any astute student of American history, cultural, political, social, and gender issues.

Callaloo

Who Speaks for Margaret Garner?

Contents

Preface
Introduction: A Strange Case?

Documents
1. Escape and Capture
2. In the Commissioner’s Court
3. Return
4. Requisition?
5. Whose Sovereignty? Courts in Conflict
6. The Ohio Legislature Responds: Debate on the Floor
7. The Battle in the Press: Editorials on the Murder
8. The Battle in the Press: Editorials on the Trial, Return, and Requisition
9. Silence in the Deep South: The Case of Charleston, South Caroline
10. Speeches, Sermons, and “Interviews”
11. Final Developments
12. Literary Sources, Literary Echoes

Acknowledgments
Appendix: Text of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850
Chronology of Key Events (1856–1871)
Notes
Selected Bibliography
Index