The White “Asylum for Mankind” and The Black “Empire of Liberty:” Haiti, the United States, and the Roots of Black Emigration (1775-1840)

Mon, Apr 12, 2021, 4:00 pm
Faculty & Staff
Graduate Students

Since the 1970s, thousands of Haitians have crossed the 700-mile stretch of ocean between the northern tip of Haiti and the southern coast of Florida, seeking asylum on American shores. It takes a leap in imagination to reverse the roots and routes in the historical patterns traditionally associated with Black migrations. And yet that is precisely what took place throughout the nineteenth century, when African-Americans left the United States and sailed for Haiti. The Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) had ended with the victory of African revolutionaries over French slaveholders and the establishment of the first Black Republic in the Atlantic world. In 1804, Haitians abolished slavery and declared their independence from revolutionary France. Soon after, an invitation from Haitian revolutionaries compelled thousands of free Black Americans to leave the United States and sail for the island republic. This transnational migration from the center of the white herrenvolk (Jacksonian) democracy to the so-called Black Republic offered a chance to redefine the boundaries of citizenship and equality in the Atlantic order.
One of the central questions this lecture explores is this: Can an abolitionist movement operate as an antiracist campaign while adhering to a variation of the same logic of race-thinking it claims to reject? This question serves to examine how some Black Nationalists of this period operated dialectically between transnational politics and trans-Atlantic Black Liberation movements to reimagine the act of exodus and that of return as an innovative search for redefining nationhood and citizenship. Black emigration to Haiti exposed comparative tensions and conflicting visions of race and citizenship in the Age of Revolutions (1776-1848). The lecture spotlights the ideology of one of these emigrants in particular, Black abolitionist Prince Saunders. Of emphasis, is an evaluation of how Saunders’s Black Nationalist ideology strategically deployed Black emigration as one of the earliest transatlantic efforts on behalf of African-American citizenship before the Civil War era.

About Westenley Alcenat , Ph.D.

ALCENAT WES ALCENAT is an historian of the nineteenth century U.S and Caribbean. His scholarship covers the shared histories of African-Americans and Afro-Caribbean peoples in connection with the wider African Diaspora in the Atlantic World. His manuscript in revision, “Children of Africa, Shall Be Haytians:” Prince Saunders and the Foundations of Black Emigration to Haiti, 1775-1865 is a study of the radicalism and ideologies of African-American settlers who emigrated to Haiti in the antebellum era.

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. Since 2015, he has served as an Academic Director in the Great Books Summer Reading Program at Amherst College. Wes has taught undergraduate courses and seminars in various topics, including: Black Urban Political History, Merchants and Slaves in Atlantic Capitalism, the Radical Tradition in U.S History, and the “Modern Caribbean: From Columbus to Castro.” 
Wes is a past recipient of the Richard Hofstadter Fellowship from Columbia University. He has been awarded fellowships from the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Hoover Institute’s Library and Archives, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the Social Science Research Council (SSRC)-Mellon Mays Graduate Initiative Grants, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and the Schomburg Center for Research in African-American Culture. In 2015-16 he was a visiting scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and an associate fellow at the Weatherhead Initiative on Global History (WIGH) at Harvard University. Before arriving to Princeton, he was a residential Postdoctoral Research Associate at The Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University’s MacMillan Center. Wes has written or provided commentary for The Jacobin Magazine,, and The Immanent Frame. He is also a contributing guest writer for the Black Perspectives Blog, the official publication of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS). Wes is a native of Haiti and spent his formative years in Minnesota and is a proud alumnus of the Minneapolis public school system. He lives in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn with B.B King, his beloved pet rabbit of 9 years. 

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