Eyes on Different Shores: Early African American Immigration and Identity Formation

AHA Session 281
Sunday, January 7, 2018: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Virginia Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level)
Rashauna Johnson, Dartmouth College
The Audience

Session Abstract

Scholars have studied the history of African American migration to Haiti and Liberia during the nineteenth century and shown how fear surrounding growing enslaved populations and the constriction of free black rights prompted waves of international travel. Additional research on the production of nineteenth century black political discourse has demonstrated the promise and possibilities of these two black republics for African Americans. This panel offers detailed studies of those who made this journey and how their travel to these countries prompted sometimes radical ways that they envisioned themselves, their communities, and their ability to alter broader conceptions of blackness during the nineteenth century.

By focusing on the experiences of several African Americans traveling to and from Haiti and Liberia, this panel explores their changing conceptions of themselves as people of African descent. In keeping with the theme of the Annual Meeting, this panel “explores the ways in which racial distinctions have contributed to the formation of national identities and nation-states as political entities” by investigating how African Americans became Liberians and Haitians while often holding on to elements of their American identities. The papers reveal the circumstances that enabled African descended peoples to reimagine and remake their futures after traveling to, and residing in, Liberia and Haiti. Each focus on the lived experiences of people of African descent who arrived in new lands with varied expectations and came to understand themselves as dramatically different individuals belonging to more expansive communities. Marie Stango’s paper identifies the overlooked participation of African American women in and after the 1847 independence movement in Liberia. Previously enslaved in the United States, many of these women fashioned their identities as free people in a new country across the Atlantic. In doing so, they presented themselves as a model for emancipatory politics by adopting and disseminating middle class values and practices. As a result, these women displayed for American and international audiences the extent to which Liberian society had developed into a middle class nation. Aston Gonzalez's paper traces the Haitian travels of a black Philadelphian artist, who, taken with the black nationalistic fervor there, returned to Philadelphia to teach African American audiences about the possibilities of embracing black nationalism and learning from Haitian leaders. In lectures and paintings inspired by his stay, he stressed the possibilities of independent black communities. Sara Fanning’s paper analyzes African Americans formulated freedom dreams in Haiti. More specifically, her paper investigates the tension between embracing and resisting a new identity for African Americans in Haiti. This tension arises from the mismatched expectations and realities of life in Haiti; she pinpoints the conditions that prompted many to yearn for home while simultaneously embracing the political freedoms they enjoyed there.

Each paper on this panel threads together the themes of shifting African American identities, emigration, and black political activism. The papers work together to highlight the conflicts and collaborations in which black Americans took part in their attempts to create a world that recognized and supported black freedoms.

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