Black Thought in the Age of Slavery: African American Intellectual Histories before Emancipation

Endorsed by the Society for U.S. Intellectual History (S-USIH)

Thursday, April 15, 2021, 2:00 PM - 3:30 PM

Type: Panel Discussion

Tags: African American; Intellectual; Slavery


This panel showcases new scholarship in black intellectual history, focusing on the period before emancipation. Deirdre Cooper Owens centers the ecological, cosmological, and political thought of Harriet Tubman, showing her to be as much a fierce intellectual as she was a courageous abolitionist. Westenley Alcenat argues that the spatial and temporal thinking represented in the slave narrative genre anticipated the transnational and transcultural turn in current academic historiography. Eric Herschthal challenges recent efforts to foreground Benjamin Banneker’s antislavery activism, arguing that Banneker engaged in abolitionism only reluctantly, and in large part so he could see his scientific work recognized.

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Mia E. Bay, University of Pennsylvania
Professor Mia Bay is the Roy F. and Jeanette P. Nichols Professor of American History at the University Pennsylvania. Prior to arriving Penn, Bay worked at Rutgers University, where she was a Professor of History and the Director of the Rutgers Center for Race and Ethnicity. Professor Bay is a scholar of American and African American intellectual, cultural and social history, whose recent interests include black women’s thought, African American approaches to citizenship, and the history of race and transportation. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Phil. from Yale University and a B.A. from the University of Toronto.
Bay’s publications include The White Image in the Black Mind: African-American Ideas about White People, 1830-1925 (Oxford University Press, 2000); To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009) and the edited work Ida B Wells, The Light of Truth: The Writings of An Anti-Lynching Crusader (Penguin Books, 2014); as well as many articles and book chapters. She is also the co-author, with Waldo Martin and Deborah Gray White, of the textbook Freedom on My Mind: A History of African Americans with Documents (Bedford/St. Martins 2012,1st Edition, 2016, 2nd Edition), and the editor of two collections of essays: Towards an Intellectual History of Black Women (University of North Carolina Press, 2015), which she co-edited with Farah Jasmin Griffin, Martha S. Jones and Barbara Savage, and Race and Retail: Consumption Across the Color Line (Rutgers University Press, 2015), which she co-edited with Ann Fabian. Bay’s current projects include a new book entitled Traveling Black: A Social History of Segregated Transportation (forthcoming, Harvard University Press); and a book on the history of African American ideas about Thomas Jefferson.
Bay’s work has been supported by the Fletcher Foundation, the National Humanities Center, Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello; the American Council of Learned Societies, Boston University’s Institute on Race and Social Division Harvard University’s Charles Warren Center and W.E.B. Du Bois Centers; and American Historical Association. An Organization of American Historians Distinguished Lecturer, Bay is a member of the executive board of the Society of American Historians and serves on the editorial boards of Reviews in American History, the Journal of African American History, and the African American Intellectual History Society’s Black Perspectives Blog. Bay is also a frequent consultant on museum and documentary film projects. Her recent public history work includes working with the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) on one of its inaugural exhibits-- “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: The Era of Segregation 1876-1968”-- and serving a scholarly advisor to the Library of Congress and NMAAHC’s Civil Rights History Project.

Panelist: Westenley Alcenat, Fordham University
Wes Alcenat is an assistant professor of history at Fordham University in New York. He is currently revising his Columbia University dissertation, titled “Revolutionary Transnationalism: Prince Saunders, Haitian Emigration, and the Problem of Citizenship in the Age of Atlantic Slavery, 1815-1865,” into a book length project. The book explores the radicalism and ideologies of African-American settlers who emigrated to Haiti in the nineteenth century. Wes’s academic interests have intersected with public history and equity in higher education to highlight histories of marginalized groups inside the university and provide critical policy recommendations. His professional experience includes working as a mentor to undergraduate students in the Graduate school’s Leadership Alliance Summer Research Program and as academic adviser for the American Studies Program at Columbia University. Since 2015, he has served as an Associate Academic Director in the Great Books Summer Reading Program at Amherst College.
He has been awarded fellowships from the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Hoover Institution’s Library and Archives, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the Social Science Research Council (SSRC)-Mellon Mays Graduate Initiative Grants, and most recently the Gilder Lehrman Institute Fellowship in American History. In 2015-‘16 he was a resident scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a visiting PhD candidate at the Weatherhead Initiative on Global History (WIGH) at Harvard University. Wes has written or provided commentary for The Jacobin Magazine,, and The Immanent Frame, and is a frequent contributor to Black Perspectives, the online forum for the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS).

Panelist: Deirdre Cooper Owens, University of Nebraska–Lincoln
Deirdre Cooper Owens is The Charles and Linda Wilson Professor in the History of Medicine and Director of the Humanities in Medicine program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is also an Organization of American Historians’ (OAH) Distinguished Lecturer. A popular public speaker, she has published essays, book chapters, and blog pieces on a number of issues that concern African American experiences. Her first book, Medical Bondage: Race, Gender and the Origins of American Gynecology (UGA Press, 2017) won the 2018 Darlene Clark Hine Book Award from the OAH as the best book written in African American women’s and gender history. Professor Cooper Owens is also the Director of the Program in African American History at the Library Company of Philadelphia, the country’s oldest cultural institution. Currently, she is working on a second book project that examines mental illness during the era of United States slavery and is also writing a popular biography of Harriet Tubman that examines her through the lens of disability.

Panelist: Eric Herschthal, University of Utah
Eric Herschthal is an assistant professor in the history department at the University of Utah. He forthcoming book, "The Science of Abolition: How Slaveholders Became the Enemies of Progress" (Yale University Press), explores the ways Black and white abolitionists used scientific ideas to discredit slaveholders. His scholarship has appeared in The Journal of the Early Republic, Early American Studies, a forthcoming volume of new scholarship on Frederick Douglass, published by Cambridge University Press in 2021, and forthcoming volume of the Oxford Handbook of Global Commodities. His research has been supported the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture,  the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, the American Philosophical Society, the Huntington Library, the University of Miami Library, and the National Science Foundation. With a background in journalism, he continues to write for publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic, and The New York Review of Books. He received his Ph.D. in history from Columbia University, a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University, and a B.A. in history from Princeton University.