The Race for America: Blackness, Belonging, and Empire in the Transamerican Nineteenth Century
Boutelle, Russell Joseph
Drawing on writings from the US, Cuba, Trinidad, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Liberia, my dissertation examines how ideas and experiences of racial categorization changed as Black individuals voluntarily crossed national borders in unprecedented numbers. I argue that race more broadly and Blackness in particular help chart the geopolitical formation of the Americas in two important ways. First, these terms index how fiction and nonfiction writings about Black migration normalized the exclusion of Black bodies from national geographies. Through narrative appeals to History (writ large), the texts I examine underwrote the idea that the Americas were destined to be the dominion of a transnational “white” race. Secondly, by reading racialized bodies through multiple, locally-defined definitions of Blackness, The Race for America illuminates how the collisions of contradictory racial epistemologies provided migratory people of color with opportunities to redefine their identities. Taking advantage of more slippery and capacious racial categories in the Caribbean or West Africa, many African Americans who left the USA secured political subjectivity for themselves where it was otherwise inaccessible. By shifting between local and transnational definitions of Blackness, The Race for America reveals how more flexible understandings of race can unravel the narratives of USAmerican exceptionalism, and provide critics with new tools for theorizing the hemisphere’s development.