Autumn 2013 African Studies Distinguished Lecture
It has become almost banal to recite the fact that between 1500 and 1820 more than three out of four immigrants to the Americas were Africans. Yet, for many scholars, the history of Africa and Africans in the Atlantic world only becomes visible at its juncture with the history of “the slave.” To be sure, this scholarship has provoked important and stimulating debates. However, the sources upon which most of these studies are based, and the organization of the colonial archive more generally, operate as something of a trap, inviting researchers to see how African slaves embraced or manipulated colonial institutions and ideas for their own purposes. In this way, African-Atlantic history often begins with American history—utilizing the same basic chronology, same watershed moments, and same emphases on European institutions and ideas.
James H, Sweet’s presentation focused on methodological and conceptual meta questions that challenge how historians conduct African Atlantic history. He argues that sources of the African past exist in the Americas, if only we are open to seeing them. In some cases these sources are hidden in plain sight, right in the very colonial archives that so often elide the African past. For instance, descriptions of African languages, ritual objects, and political traditions can be found in a range of colonial documents. Further, in places where Africans were often dominant, like Brazil, St. Domingue, and Jamaica, Europeans sometimes adopted African forms of knowledge and ways of being as their own. By reading colonial documents through African ontological frameworks, even those sources consisting entirely of European actors might reveal the African past, illuminating African-European historical entanglements that the documents (and previous scholars) have most often dismissed as “superstitious,” “farcical,” or “carnivalesque.”
James H. Sweet is Vilas-Jartz Distinguished Professor at the University of Wisconsin, where he is also chair of the History department. He received his undergraduate and MA training at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and completed his PhD at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Sweet’s research and teaching interests range broadly across the history of Africa and the African diaspora. His book, Recreating Africa: Culture, Kinship, and Religion in the African-Portuguese World, 1441-1770 (2003) won the American Historical Association’s Wesley Logan prize for the best book on the history of the African diaspora in 2004. It was also a finalist for the Frederick Douglass Prize, awarded by the Gilder Lehrman Center at Yale University. His Domingos Álvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World (2011) won the American Historical Association’s James A. Rawley prize for the best book in Atlantic history and most recently the 2012 Frederick Douglass Prize. Sweet is also the author of more than a dozen journal and book articles, as well as a co-edited volume (with Tejumola Olaniyan, UW English) entitled, The African Diaspora and the Disciplines (2010). He sits on editorial boards of three scholarly journals and is a book series editor at the University of Wisconsin Press. In addition to his scholarly work, Sweet has served as a consultant for the National Geographic Society, The History Channel, Kunhardt McGee Productions (PBS), the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the Mapungubwe Institute, and the Black Economic Empowerment Commission in South Africa.
This event is presented by the Committee on African Studies and cosponsored by the Center for International Studies.