Mapping Black Mobilities and Identities in the Long 19th Century

AHA Session 149
Friday, January 5, 2018: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Maryland Suite C (Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level)
Jessica Johnson, Johns Hopkins University
The Audience

Session Abstract

During the long nineteenth century (1789-1919) people of African descent in the Americas engaged in cultures of mobility that allowed them to shape and assert their identities in the face racial discrimination and enslavement. From truancy to national and international travel, enslaved and free Blacks understood the power of movement as not only a form of resistance but also of becoming. The ability to move opened up possibilities to express a range of black subjectivities.

This panel brings together scholars who explore these contours of black mobility and identity-making during the long nineteenth century using digital humanities methodologies, as well as African Diaspora history and mobility studies approaches. In line with the conference theme “Race, Ethnicity, and Nationalism in Global Perspective,” the panelists explore how local, national, and transnational black mobility—predominantly in the form of voluntary travel—served to destabilize and challenge narratives of black inferiority and fixity. In particular, black international travel became a vehicle for asserting black agency and imagining global blackness. These travels also brought into sharp relief the restrictions on black mobility abroad. Similarly, local travel undertaken by free Blacks in the United States allow them to assert their individual freedom, but also confront the limits of that liberty.

We begin with Katrina Anderson’s paper “Women of African Descent and Their Global Quest for Financial Security and Respectability,” which explores the international travel of Nancy Prince, a free African American woman, and Mary Seacole, a free mixed-raced Jamaican woman, both who traveled in South America, the Caribbean, and Europe during the early and mid-19th century. Both women used their travels to become economically self-sufficient, as well as to engage in humanitarian activities. Joan Bryant’s paper “Labor, Kinship, and the 19th-Century Worlds of Asa Valentine” follows with an exploration of the life of a free black man who lived in New Jersey during the first half of the 19th century. Bryant uses Valentine 1854 journal to interrogate and expose the ways in which black freedom existed in a tenuous space with black enslavement. In addition, the paper reveals the shifting racial classifications of one black family across space and time. Jeannette Eileen Jones’s paper “‘We Have a Country There’: US Diplomacy and Black Travel in Africa, 1877-1900” explores the influence of US diplomacy on black travel in Africa during the Gilded Age. Specifically, she uncovers latent synergies between African American travelers and members of the U.S. consular service, as well as tangible connections between Ministers Resident and Consul Generals in Liberia and black travelers. Kellie Carter Jackson will deliver the last paper, “Losing Laroche: The Story of the Titanic’s Only Black Passenger,” which examines the life-story of Haitian Joseph Philippe Lemercier Laroche who perished on the Titanic. The paper reads Laroche’s story alongside the fictional “Shine,” a black figure aboard the Titanic, according to African American oral tradition and verbal play, who mocks the drowning white passengers. Jackson’s telling of Laroche’s story highlights the promise and limitations of travel to achieve black agency and advancement.

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