“Black Atlantic Lives: Biography in the African Diaspora” Panel Proposal AHA Annual Conference Boston, Massachusetts January 6-9, 2011 The thriving field of African Diaspora studies in conjunction with the emergence of historians of the Black Atlantic birthed numerous important and powerful studies of persons of African descent. Scholars have tended to focus on the group experience of Africans caught in the many currents of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, but beyond Olaudah Equiano – and the subsequent debate surrounding his origins – few scholars have focused on the individual in studying the Black Atlantic. “Black Atlantic Lives: Biography in the African Diaspora” seeks to emphasize the individual's experience in navigating the troubled waters of the eighteenth and nineteenth century Atlantic world. In the following three biographical sketches, Elizabeth Pryor, Kevin Dawson and Jeffrey Fortin illuminate the varying ways in which Africans in the diaspora defined the sacred. Kevin Dawson's “Navigating race and Slavery” interprets the ship as a sacred space, where African pilots could attain hitherto unreachable levels of freedom where whites depended upon their skills – honed in Africa – to safely deliver valuable cargo, vessels and crew to port. Jeff Fortin's “African American Imperialist” seeks an alternative understanding of Paul Cuffe and his voyages east to Sierra Leone, a sacred site where thousands of free African Americans and Jamaican Maroons attempted to build a free black colony. Cuffe believed such a colony was incomplete without Christianity taking center stage. Liz Pryor's “After Sojourning in Your Hospitable Land” examines the Pennsylvanian born Zilpha Elaw's Trans-Atlantic journey as a preacher and middle class citizen of nineteenth century London. Her journey across the Atlantic reveals the nature of race, gender and religious awakenings in the diaspora. Each of these biographies set within the Black Atlantic interpret the sacred in unique ways. All three papers understand freedom to be the most sacred idea and experience within the African diaspora, yet it is also the Atlantic Ocean itself that served as a sacred space for the central figures in these three studies. Corresponding with traditional West Africa conceptions of water as the path to the afterlife, the Atlantic served as the conduit to enlightenment, freedom, and identity formation, revered for what could be accomplished on its waters and within its ports cities and waterways.
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