Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Robert F. Reid-Pharr

Committee Members

Herman L. Bennett

Siraj Ahmed

Subject Categories

English Language and Literature | Race, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Studies


Long Eighteenth Century, Black Studies, Caribbean Studies, Black Atlantic Literatures and Cultures


The Social Life of Black Thought in the Long Eighteenth Century moves from the framework of social death to the foundations of social life in the study of early black Anglophone writings. By exploring the diverse textual and visual forms through which black life appeared in the Anglo-Atlantic world of the long eighteenth century, my project argues for situating early black writings within the social spheres of the city, the plantation, slaves’ provision grounds and independent markets, and churches. In this regard, I depart from the popular model of social death in literary criticism as a mode of reading early black writing – that is, I move away from the study of natal alienation and severing of kinship ties resulting from the practices of enslavement. The overwhelming literary criticism around social death as a model overshadows the early conversations – actual, assembled, and imagined – produced by African diasporic subjects. Methodologically, this dissertation insists that social life was forged by eighteenth-century black subjects in the presence/present of the transatlantic slave trade’s realities. Rather than treat each black writer in this dissertation as isolated figures who offer up testimonies, I read groups of writers as responding to specific social spheres of life: the city, the plantation, the Sunday marketplace, and church.

Named after the slave ship, the 1781 Zong massacre was a critical moment in the British abolitionist movement. This event – where African slaves were thrown overboard in exchange for insurance money – foregrounded death, the spectacle of violence, and commodification as the organizing features for visualizing blackness in the emergent liberal public sphere. The Social Life of Black Thought offers other citations of blackness that are not always coupled with the image of the slave ship, which symbolically holds eighteenth-century representations of blackness at a site of endless terror and alienation. Because the slave ship symbolically holds, this dissertation asks how land and physical space grounded and mobilized visions of community among early African diasporic subjects.

I theorize the Caribbean plantation system as a migratory idea in the eighteenth century that irrupts different types of relationships to the land for black subjects in the Atlantic world. Although the early black Anglophone archive has been largely confined within the abolitionist (liberal) projects of the long eighteenth century, I argue that the archive operates in a similar dynamic to the plot system in the Caribbean. The literary spaces afforded to early black subjects – like the plot of land planters allotted to their slaves to relieve the responsibility of feeding laborers while maximizing plantation profits – were spaces repurposed and redirected towards the communal and material needs of diasporic African subjects in the Atlantic world. In other words, early black Anglophone writings did not always serve the liberal public sphere; these writings also indexed material relations to the physical spaces, and catalogued forms of rootedness in social life and futurity.

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