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Jewish Studies and Black Studies in Dialogue Series: Searching for Zion—Black Emigration to Haiti and the Elusive Quest for American Citizenship

Wednesday, October 27
4 – 5:30 p.m.

In the 19th century, as the enslavement of African Americans was expanding on the North American mainland, many free African Americans left the United States and sailed for Haiti, the first Black republic in the Atlantic world created in the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), where slavery was abolished. 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.

During this lecture, Westenley Alcenat, Fordham University, and Derek Penslar, Harvard University, examine how Black nationalists of this period operated between transnational politics and trans-Atlantic Black liberation movements to reimagine the act of exodus and that of return as a continuous search for redefining nationhood and citizenship. Black emigration to Haiti exposed comparative tensions and conflicting ideals 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, who strategically deployed Black emigration as one of the earliest transatlantic efforts on behalf of African American citizenship before the Civil War era.

About the Speakers
Alcenat is a 19th-century historian of the U.S and Caribbean who teaches at Fordham. His scholarship covers the shared histories of African Americans and Afro-Caribbean people 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. Alcenat 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-Mellon Mays Graduate Initiative Grants, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and the Schomburg Center for Research in African-American Culture.

From 2015 to 2016, he was a visiting scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a visiting associate fellow at the Weatherhead Initiative on Global History 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. Alcenat has written or provided commentary for The Jacobin Magazine, Theroot.com, 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.

Penslar is the William Lee Frost Professor of Jewish History at Harvard University. He previously taught at Indiana University, the University of Toronto, and Oxford University, where he was the inaugural holder of the Stanley Lewis Chair in Modern Israel Studies. Penslar takes a comparative and transnational approach to Jewish history, which he studies within the contexts of modern capitalism, nationalism, and colonialism. Penslar’s books include Shylock’s Children: Economics and Modern Identity in Modern Europe (2001), Israel in History: The Jewish State in Comparative Perspective (2006), The Origins of the State of Israel: A Documentary History (with Eran Kaplan, 2011), Jews and the Military: A History (2013), and Theodor Herzl: The Charismatic Leader (2020). He is currently completing a book titled Zionism: An Emotional State, and is beginning work on a global history of the 1948 Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Penslar is president of the American Academy for Jewish Research, a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and an honorary fellow of St. Anne’s College, Oxford.

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This event is open to the public.