Black Theories of Citizenship in the Early United States, 1787-1861

Project Directors: Derrick Spires, Professor of English

Grant Program: Fellowships for University Teachers

Years: 2015

"Black Theories reconstructs a history of U.S. citizenship before the passage of the 14th Amendment through an analysis of a robust black print culture that includes pamphlets, poems, fiction, convention proceedings, petitions and newspapers. Through this archive Black Theories develops a practice-based theory of citizenship as an ongoing process of community building based on five principles:  neighborliness, the free circulation of civic power, economic equality, critique, and continuing revolution.  Black citizens did this work not simply as a response to white oppression, but more importantly as a matter of course in the shaping of their own communities and in the process of meeting their own political, social, and cultural needs.  From Phillis Wheatley’s “On Imagination” to Thomas Hamilton’s mission statement for the Anglo-African Magazine (1859); these writers meditate on ethical and deliberative notions of republican citizenship; model these paradigms through textual form and circulation; and activate them through embodied performances like conventions, vigilance activities, and everyday practices of walking, working, and loving.  Reading these archives as spaces where citizenship was both theorized and practiced, as archive and repertoire, I also reveal the degree to which black theories of citizenship unfold through a highly creative and diverse community of letters, not easily reducible to representative figures or genres."

Derrick Spires

The Past Five Years