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.