Freedom Tactics: Inventing Alternatives to Enslavement and Race in the 18th- and 19th-Century Black Atlantic

AHA Session 36
Thursday, January 4, 2018: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Virginia Suite A (Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level)
Andrew Zimmerman, George Washington University
James T. Downs, Connecticut College

Session Abstract

Despite scholars’ commitment to expand the boundaries of Atlantic slavery beyond national borders in the last decade, historians often continue relying on the constraining language of national histories to explain aspects of enslavement, including race and resistance. By describing the lives of women and men enslaved and racialized during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in these national contexts, scholars overlook the similarities and substantive connections between peoples kidnapped and subjugated. This panel seeks to challenge the dependence on national borders, policies, and histories to better understand the lives of enslaved and formerly enslaved women and men by connecting modes of freedom-making through the shared experiences during and in confronting enslavement.

The panel brokers connections between resistances and individual efforts to shape their lives around the Atlantic during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, bringing struggles against slavery among women and men together. However, the papers do more than recover lives and ideas lost to history; the stories of these women and men implicitly, and at times explicitly, demand reconceptualizations of race, resistance, and freedom in the study of slavery, both as a transatlantic system and in constituent national histories. Justin Leroy examines black Atlantic writers who saw the eighteenth-century British Atlantic as a space sustained through racial capitalism; these writers identified how the labor system exploited black enslaved as well as free labor. Shauna Sweeney’s paper explores the connections between Jamaica’s informal economy and the British Empire. Sweeney contends that the commerce between the British military not only kept the troops well-supplied but also afforded slave women sufficient funds to carve out autonomy and establish personal and patronage relationships with soldiers. Jonathan Lande’s paper reconnects the history of slave enlistment in the U.S. during the Civil War with the enduring use of enslaved men in warfare by European nations, specifically addressing popular modes of resistance by African American soldiers with maroons and enlisted slaves. The panel chair, Andrew Zimmerman, and commentator, Jim Downs, will facilitate the conversation. Zimmerman’s on-going work drawing links between Europe, Africa, and the Americas and Downs’ research into cholera in the Atlantic world make them ideal facilitators, for they will undoubtedly supply provocative connections yet unseen.

Essential themes in the histories of slavery, from race and punishment to abolition and liberation, extend outside national boundaries and therefore require bridges, not walls, to learn about the modes of repression as well as resistance in the African Diaspora. These papers offer bridges. The papers expose modes of resistance, which existed beyond the scope of the dominant spectrum of political activism, and assess the connections forged throughout the black Atlantic to overcome exploitation. Taken together, these papers recognize the limitations of national histories to our understanding slavery, race, and freedom. Pieced together from around the Atlantic, the stories of these women and men told in each paper challenge us to remap the experiences of enslaved peoples.

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