Bodies, Humans, Persons, Citizens: Theories of Black Personhood in the 19th Century
What is a person? Are “body,” “person,” and “human” synonymous terms? Is “citizen” a subset of one or more of these categories? Why do we reach for some of these terms in specific contexts, and what assumptions or investments do we reveal when we do? How do these terms variously narrate other categories of identity such as race, nationality, gender, and sexuality? Does the very title of this course suggest a hierarchy that we might want to disrupt?
In this seminar, we will examine these questions mainly through the lens of the 19th century Atlantic world, where legalized slavery, colonialism, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow put particular pressure on these categories. Specifically, we will read a combination of primary and secondary sources to study competing versions of Black personhood in C19. Students working on personhood in other periods and regions, however, are encouraged to use our theoretical work to develop projects related to their broader research agendas. Specific readings may include works by: David Walker, Mary Prince, William and Ellen Craft, Henry “Box” Brown, Charles Chesnutt, Saidiya Hartman, Stephen Best, Tiffany King, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Martha Jones, Christina Sharpe, Vincent Brown, Nicole Aljoe, Colin Dayan, and Russ Castronovo. We will also take up several legal materials, which may include: the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Scott v. Sandford, Plessy v. Ferguson, and the Mississippi Black Codes of 1865.