After the Common Wind: Atlantic Studies and the Work of Julius S. Scott III

AHA Session 7
Thursday, January 3, 2019: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Boulevard C (Hilton Chicago, Second Floor)
Ada Ferrer, New York University
Alexander Byrd, Rice University
Laurent M. Dubois, Duke University
Jessica Johnson, Johns Hopkins University
Edgardo Perez Morales, University of Southern California
Julius Scott, University of Michigan
Rebecca J. Scott, University of Michigan

Session Abstract

Few unpublished doctoral dissertations have had the impact of the 1986 Duke thesis by Julius S.Scott, III, “The Common Wind: Currents of Afro-American Communication in the Era of the Haitian Revolution.” Thirty-two years after its appearance, scholars from multiple disciplines recognize it as having crucially shaped research and interpretation in the then-emergent field of Atlantic Studies and in the long-standing field of African American history. In September, 2018, Verso Press will publish the thesis in its original form, providing an occasion for our panelists and the audience to reflect upon the ways in which Julius Scott’s work opened up questions, sources, and lines of analysis that continue to stimulate new generations of researchers.

Each of the panelists describes a different dimension along which Julius Scott’s work shaped his or her own research, and the conceptual breakthroughs that it announced. We begin with a generation inspired as students by Scott’s teaching and writing. Laurent Dubois highlights the importance of rumor in its multiple and often generative forms in the late eighteenth century. Rumors of abolition could inspire organizing that would bring that moment closer; rumors of impending repression could trigger collective resistance. Jessica Johnson emphasizes the power of Scott’s example of transnational, multiligual, multi-archival excavation. His demonstration of the promiscuous, contagious power of ideas of freedom among African American subjects placed this topic front and center in the renewed exploration of the roots of emancipation. Edgardo Pérez-Morales, taking the view from Latin America, was inspired to seek evidence on the sailors aboard Cartagena privateers, adding to Scott’s portrait of the “masterless Atlantic.” He thus followed Scott’s example of microhistorical exploration tightly connected to larger forces. Rebecca Scott, a historian of Julius Scott’s own generation, draws inpiration from Julius Scott’s multiple, overlapping interpretations of the peripatetic man who gave his name as Newport Bowers. In 1793 Bowers travelled toward, not away from, the city of Cap Français in the midst of revolution, departing six months later under uncertain circumstances and at risk of enslavement. Each of Julius Scott’s successive understandings of what Newport Bowers said and did illuminates the open-ended and generative quality of the historian’s craft as practiced by a master.

Finally, Alexander Byrd situates the 1986 thesis in the cultural moment in which it appeared, pointing out that Scott’s emphasis on blackness within Atlantic histories directly challenged the anxious boundary-defending arguments of conservatives in the decade of the 1980s. The great subtlety of Scott’s interpretation stood as a clear rebuke to the claim that attention to the agency of African Americans would somehow dilute and weaken the very quality of U.S. historiography.

Julius Scott will serve as commentator/responder and Ada Ferrer, author of Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution, will chair.

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