Biography and the Black Atlantic

Biography and the Black Atlantic

Biography and the Black Atlantic

Biography and the Black Atlantic


In Biography and the Black Atlantic, leading historians in the field of Atlantic studies examine the biographies and autobiographies of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century African-descended people and reflect on the opportunities and limitations these life stories present to studies of slavery and the African diaspora. The essays remind us that historical developments like slavery and empire-building were mostly experienced and shaped by men and women outside of the elite political, economic, and military groups to which historians often turn as sources.

Despite the scarcity of written records and other methodological challenges, the contributors to Biography and the Black Atlantic have pieced together vivid glimpses into lives of remarkable, through previously unknown, enslaved and formerly enslaved people who moved, struggled, and endured in different parts of Africa, the Americas, and Europe. From the woman of Fulani origin who made her way from Revolutionary Haiti to Louisiana to the free black American who sailed for Liberia and the former slave from Brazil who became a major slave trader in Angola, these stories render the Atlantic world as a densely and sometimes unpredictably interconnected sphere. Biography and the Black Atlantic demonstrates the power of individual stories to illuminate history: though the life histories recounted here often involved extraordinary achievement and survival against the odds, they also portray the struggle for self-determination and community in the midst of alienation that lies at the heart of the modern condition.

Contributors: James T. Campbell, Vincent Carretta, Roquinaldo Ferreira, Jean-Michel Hébrard, Martin Klein, Lloyd S. Kramer, Sheryl Kroen, Jane Landers, Lisa A. Lindsay, Joseph C. Miller, Cassandra Pybus, João José Reis, Rebecca J. Scott, Jon Sensbach, John Wood Sweet.


Lisa A. Lindsay and John Wood Sweet

In recent years, historians and other writers have begun to produce a surge of studies of the “Black Atlantic” organized around particular life stories. This approach builds on and also suggests the limitations of scholarship over the last generation, which has focused on the myriad flow of captives, capital, and cultures around the early modern Atlantic world. Now, many scholars are populating this abstract and anonymous Atlantic with the historically situated experiences of individuals. a number of life histories are already in print, and more are in preparation. in some ways historical works like these echo themes explored by novelists like Barry Unsworth, Toni Morrison, Manu Herbstein, and Caryl Phillips. Collectively, these studies suggest that we are in a moment of intense concentration on the Black Atlantic as lived experience.

In this volume, leading historians of Africa, the Americas, and Europe explore the potential for and implications of biography as a method for interpreting the connected histories of Atlantic societies. They do so through broad, conceptual analyses as well as case studies of individuals of African descent who lived, moved, and struggled through the early modern Atlantic world. By attaching names and faces to broad processes such as slaving, enslavement, identity formation, empire-building, migration, and emancipation, biography can illuminate the meanings of these large, impersonal forces for individuals.

The Black Atlantic is both a space and an argument. For cultural theorist Paul Gilroy, the modern Black Atlantic was a location of both physical movement—migrations and crossings both forced and voluntary—and of continual cultural exchange, shaped from the start by racial violence. the cultures of the African diaspora were hybrid and creative, even as they reflected . . .

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