Roundtable The State of Abolition Studies: From the Sacred to the Secular?

AHA Session 25
Thursday, January 6, 2011: 3:00 PM-5:00 PM
Room 306 (Hynes Convention Center)
David B. Davis, Yale University
Christopher L. Brown, Columbia University , Stephen Kantrowitz, University of Wisconsin-Madison , James Sidbury, University of Texas , Manisha Sinha, University of Massachusetts at Amherst and John Stauffer, Harvard University

Session Abstract

This roundtable will explore the current state of abolition studies with fresh perspectives from scholars who have published innovative works in the field. While the traditional historical narrative of abolition emphasized the role of evangelical Christianity in the creation of its ideology, particularly in the view of slavery as a sin, recent historical work has sought to draw attention to the disparate roots of abolition. Scholars have emphasized the transnational nature of abolition, the issues of gender and race, specifically the creation of a diasporic African identity and a distinct black tradition of protest. The sacred however continues to play a role in the exploration of these seemingly secular issues, whether it is the making of a Quaker “antislavery international,” the creation of African American Christianity or interracialism within the movement based on Christian universalism and notions of brotherhood. The presenters in this roundtable will illuminate the ways in which abolition studies, with a broader and new cast of historical actors, has progressed from a narrow look at established religion to a re-imagination of the connection between the sacred and a radical social movement like abolition.            The roundtable will be chaired by the Dean of slavery and abolition studies, David Brion Davis, who first drew attention to the broader roots of immediate abolition challenging its birth in only evangelical Christianity. Christopher Brown will talk about the influence of transnational events, religious and political, on slave trade and slavery abolition in Britain and how abolition there affected the movement in the United States and elsewhere. James Sidbury will draw attention to an important earlier generation of African writers in Britain who constructed a modern African Christian identity and an important, though largely forgotten, strain of antislavery thought. Manisha Sinha will argue for the centrality of black abolitionist ideology in the creation of the movement in the United States. African Americans not only pioneered the initial tactics of the movement but developed the theoretical argument against the pseudo science of race by evoking a black Christian antislavery discourse of liberation and divine vengeance. John Stauffer will examine the creation and transformation of interracialism within the abolition movement. He will show how abolitionist ideas on race imagined a new sacred space that would confront and transform the social reality of entrenched racism. Finally, Steven Kantrowitz will illustrate how black activists dealt with the gendered issues of masculinity and brotherhood within the abolition movement. The tension between collective aims and individual ties affected their position on a host of controversies over politics, gender, and religion.             This panel will appeal to those interested in Anglo-American antislavery but more broadly to those who work in the field of slavery, slave resistance, gender studies, and African American protest traditions. Geographically, its reach is wide, covering the Atlantic world of slavery from Africa and Europe to the Caribbean and North America. Historiographically, it addresses generally the relationship between radical social movements and the sacred.

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