“It is time for the slaves to speak:” transatlantic abolitionism and African American activism in Britain 1835-1895

Murray, Hannah-Rose (2018) “It is time for the slaves to speak:” transatlantic abolitionism and African American activism in Britain 1835-1895. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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Abstract

During their transatlantic journeys to Britain throughout the nineteenth century, African Americans engaged in what I term “adaptive resistance,” a multi-faceted interventionist strategy by which they challenged white supremacy and won support for abolition. Alongside my recovery of this mode of self-presentation in sources I have excavated from Victorian newspapers, I use an interdisciplinary methodology that draws on literary studies, cultural history, memory studies, African American studies and the visual culture of antislavery iconography to (re)discover black performative strategies on the Victorian stage from the late 1830s to the mid 1890s. Performance was only one strand in the black activist arsenal, however. The successful employment of adaptive resistance relied on a triad of performance, abolitionist networks and exploitation of print culture. For the first time, I have identified and unified these themes as central to black abolitionist transatlantic visits, and conclude that if an individual ensured an even balance between all three, it was likely their sojourn was successful. This changes our previous knowledge of black abolitionist missions, as we can use this analysis to explain why some activist visits were more successful than others.

To share their testimony of slavery, black men and women such as Moses Roper, Frederick Douglass, William and Ellen Craft, Henry ‘Box’ Brown, J. Sella Martin, Josiah Henson and Ida B. Wells “adapted” to the location and the climate in which they spoke in. Intervening in white public spaces, they subverted white power and refused to exploit themselves as spectacles or objects for white consumption. To maximize their message, they exploited the connections made available through Victorian print culture to foster favourable coverage of their lectures, befriended newspaper editors and organized the printing of narratives or pamphlets recording their speeches. Synonymous with this was their utilization of as many white abolitionist networks as possible.

Through the exploitation of performance, print culture and abolitionist networks, black men and women forged a black American protest tradition in Britain. Their acts of resistance infused this tradition with a spirit of independence that could be deployed against paternalistic white antislavery reformers as well as white racists, both on an abolitionist and non-abolitionist stage. An essential part of this African American protest tradition was the creation and celebration of black testimony. Black men and women sought to make their voices heard in a climate dominated by white supremacy; they refused to capitulate and educated thousands of people on slavery and its legacies through physically and mentally demanding tours organized across Britain. This protest tradition continues to this day, with #BlackLivesMatter activists travelling to Britain to campaign against transatlantic state violence.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: Pethers, Matthew
Trodd, Zoe
Keywords: PhD thesis
Subjects: E History - America > E151 United States (General)
H Social sciences > HT Communities. Classes. Races
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Arts > School of American and Canadian Studies
Item ID: 51357
Depositing User: Murray, Hannah
Date Deposited: 30 Aug 2018 13:15
Last Modified: 05 Sep 2018 18:45
URI: http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/id/eprint/51357

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