Black Auto/Biography and History's Biographical Turn

AHA Session 35
Thursday, January 3, 2019: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Crystal Room (Palmer House Hilton, Third Floor)
William L. Andrews, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Afrocuban Autobiography and the Cuban National Narrative
Mark A. Sanders, University of Notre Dame
Inscribing Equality: Caribbean Voices in the Age of Revolution
Michele Reid-Vazquez, University of Pittsburgh
Promised Freedom: A Global Biography in a 17th-Century Lawsuit
Norah L. A. Gharala, Georgian Court University
Mariana L. Dantas, Ohio University

Session Abstract

“I have been a slave myself—I know what slaves feel—I can tell by myself what other slaves feel, and by what they have told me,” wrote Mary Prince in her narrative, The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, published in 1831. Scholars of history and literature use a variety of sources and methodologies in search of the interior thoughts, feelings, and motivations of enslaved and free Afro-descendant people in the Americas. Using narratives and other historical records, this panel discusses new directions in the study of Black lived experiences across disciplines and methodologies. Autobiography and Black literature, like biography and history, yield rich narratives centered on the experiences of individuals of African descent. These may also be stories that, as Rebecca J. Scott and Jean Hébrard have argued, “viewed from very close to the ground, may reveal dynamics that are not visible through the more familiar lens of region or nation (Freedom Papers, 5).”

Auto/biography has gained renewed attention from historians, and the study of life-writing within African-American literature is now well established. A biographical turn in history builds on microhistory and the experiences of non-elite individuals and their networks, thus allowing us access to interior lives as well as lived experience. Auto/biographies and microhistories—whether used as lenses to understand wider forces or to explore the experiences of a specific life or group of lives—enable us to trace multiple ways in which often muted or heretofore silenced voices intervened in records of the past. Life-writings have provided especially rich insights into the lived experiences of enslavement, religious callings, political engagement, and family reclamation among people of African descent in the Americas. This panel pairs these sources and methods from literature with historical research using court testimony, manifestos, petitions, and speeches.

Through this discussion, we hope to address some of the rich possibilities for studying Black interiority in colonial and national contexts in the Americas. Spanning the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, and covering multiple national and imperial spaces, the scholars on this panel seek examples of Afro-descendent self-presentations and motivations through multiple lenses. Together, we will address some of the challenges inherent in our respective methodologies. How do readers of texts that were not fully in the hands of Black authors address power imbalances inherent in the transmission and framing of their narratives? More broadly, what can these texts tell us about race and identity in the Americas, as well as gender constructs, socioeconomic hierarchies, and conceptions of family? Interdisciplinary approaches to microhistory, as well as historicized approaches to autobiography, are vital. Beyond the memoirs of elites, life-writing in various forms, as well as documents pertaining to legal and social history, can offer scholars revealing glimpses into dimensions of African American history as yet insufficiently assessed. Analyzing individual perspectives and family units, we can delve deeper into the possibilities for assessing the inner lives of Afro-descendants in slavery and freedom.

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