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Symposium "African American Worldmaking in the Long Nineteenth Century"

University of Potsdam // Campus Neues Palais // October 11-12, 2019

Image: Minor Cosmos Doodle no4 // Artist: Sikho Siyotula (Doktorandin in RTG Minor Cosmopolitanisms)


Our symposium sets out to trace the many ways in which African Americans in the long nineteenth century conceptualized the world in imaginative and material modes, in theory and in practice. We understand worldmaking in various senses of constructing a world and one’s place in it. In the words of Nelson Goodman, “worldmaking as we know it always starts from worlds already on hand; the making is the remaking.” Scholars in postcolonial studies have differentiated between worlding as an act of colonization (the colonial mapping of the globe as a possessive and interpretive act) on the one hand, and conceptions of planetarity (an awareness of our planet as unknowable and vulnerable, as well as a sense of human connectedness) on the other (Said, Spivak, Gilroy). In world literature debates, there is an attempt to differentiate capitalist and neocolonial modes of controlling the globe from worldmaking as the literary conception of multiple alternative worlds in the process of becoming (Cheah).

Our symposium is interested in how worlds were made and remade in the historical contexts of diaspora, enslavement, and segregation in North America. How did people of African ancestry map their world in the long nineteenth century? Which networks and connections did they envision and create? Which genres and modes did they employ to conceive of their place in the cosmos? What kind of worldviews did they create, discuss, or dismiss? How did they relate to debates on cosmopolitanism? We invite papers from various perspectives (history and public history, literary and cultural studies, and other fields) that address some of these questions. We encourage papers that theorize possible approaches to African American worldmaking: Which factors (such as identity, character, race, cultural belonging, gender, religion, enslavement, economics, mobility, territory, community, nation, diaspora, pan-Africanism, cosmopolitanism, etc.) are useful for this analysis? Which new approaches and paradigms may we need to develop? The symposium seeks to bring together an international group of established and early career scholars from various institutions and disciplines in the hope of generating intense discussion and exchange.

The symposium will take place at the University of Potsdam on October 11 and 12, 2019. It comprises two formats: regular papers and work in progress. Regular papers are 40 minutes long (followed by 20 minutes of discussion). Presentations of work in progress are 20 minutes long (followed by 40 minutes of discussion).

Please register until October 1st!

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Niya Bates  (International Center for Jefferson Studies)

The Art of Interpretation

 In the context of the Hemingses at Monticello, worldmaking was different than the worldmaking of many enslaved people who knew little beyond their local plantations. An entire generation of Hemings siblings traveled the east coast from Charlottesville to Philadelphia and abroad to Paris, providing them the opportunity to make worlds for themselves within and outside the confines of slavery. Through exhibits and interpretation at Monticello and in a poetry collection entitled Mistress, Bates and Sebree will explore what it means to make and interpret worlds for contemporary audiences out of the world nineteenth century African Americans made for themselves.


Biographical note

Niya Bates is Director of African American History and Getting Word Oral History Project in the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello. She has been with Monticello since 2016. Started in 1993, Getting Word is a growing archive of over 200 oral histories of people descended from slaves at Monticello. Niya works to engage local and national audiences in dialogue about Monticello, slavery and its enduring legacies, and race. She earned a B.A. in African and African American Studies and an M.A. in Architectural History and Historic Preservation – both from the University of Virginia. Her research focuses on enslaved families at Monticello, African American life in the Reconstruction Era in Virginia, and rural cultural preservation. She has published articles in Arris: Journal of the Southeast Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.


Michael Drexler (Bucknell University)

Looking Forward/Looking Backward: African-American Futures at an Historically Black College in West Virginia

Storer College, one of the first Historically Black Colleges (HBCU), was founded in 1865 and incorporated as a public college of West Virginia in 1867 at Harpers Ferry in the hills overlooking the US arms depot that John Brown and his raiders attacked in 1859, initiating the Civil War. In 1955, Storer closed following the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) gave West Virginia legislators the excuse to cut funding for separate, but equal schools. During its remarkable history, Storer staged several important moments in the history of the Civil Rights Movement, including notable speeches by prominent African Americans. Among these were College Trustee Frederick Douglass, the Evangelical pan-Africanist Alexander Crummell, and W.E.B. DuBois, who led the Niagara Movement’s first public convention on US soil at the college in 1906. In 1909, the Niagara Movement reformed as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Taken together, these speeches trace the world-making creativity of African American leaders including some significant disagreement about how to position enslavement in visions of the future for the race. At times, these discussions were both vigorous and hotly contested. Frederick Douglass reportedly interrupted Crummell’s commencement speech in 1885, when the latter argued that looking backward at slavery ran counter to realizing black liberation moving forward. In this paper, I will review the history of historically black colleges with particular attention to Storer College and then will discuss speeches by Douglass, Crummell and DuBois, paying particular attention to two elements: 1) mentions of John Brown and the setting of the college in Harpers Ferry, and 2) claims about the importance of the past to the future of African American life in the US or beyond. The role of John Brown’s activism in these speeches is noteworthy beyond Brown’s connection to the college’s setting. Indeed, attitudes about slavery, reparations, and the future come into particular relief in the light of Brown’s raid, his inter-racial coalition, and his spectacular violent deeds and martyrdom. This historical and cultural context is especially valuable today when, in response to Ta-Nehisi Coates call, several Democratic candidates for the US Presidency have come out in support of federal reparations for slavery and the US Congress hosted its first hearing on the matter in June 2019.


Biographical note

Michael Drexler is professor of English at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA. His book (with Ed White) The Traumatic Colonel: The Founding Fathers, Slavery, and the Phantasmatic Aaron Burr was published by NYU in 2014. He also co-edited both The Haitain Revolution and the Early United States (UPenn 2016) and Beyond Douglass: New Approaches to African-American Literature (Bucknell 2008). His work also appears in Early American Literature, American Literary History, Atlantic Studies and several edited collections, most recently in The Oxford Companion to Charles Brockden Brown (2019).


Judith Madera (Wake Forest University)

Black Utopias: Modal Worlds and Movements

My talk cues a radical Black geographical record that emerged across the Caribbean and the US during the long epoch of abolition. I draw attention to individuals whose stories have too often been buried in the archive, but who literally traversed worlds as a way to counter nineteenth-century slavery’s known coordinates. These include activist-emigrationists like Mary Ann Shadd and Henry Bibb, as well as Pan-Africanists like Edward Wilmot Blyden, whose Ethiopianism influenced W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, among others. My discussion of worldmaking will mostly center on nineteenth-century Black futurism projects and the ways they took shape in material spaces, spaces that often defied the closure of representation. To this end, I describe histories formed in the relay of geographic venture and print circulation. I claim that the purchase of utopic possibility can alight even in destructive, body-consuming spaces. Utopias need not be unreal sites, or expression framed by the negative aesthetics of dislocation. They can be sensory-driven environs that defy dominant benchmarks of jurisdiction, like those described by Mary Prince from the Eastern fringes of the Caribbean to Susanna Strickland, or the archipelagoes projected by Nancy Gardner Prince of Boston and Afro-Trinidadian Michel Philip as a poetics of resistance. Radical geography does not merely challenge the official alignment system. Instead, it invents connectivity in sites that look like closures. It insists on forms that give presence to Black embodiment.


Biographical note

Judith Madera is associate professor of English at Wake Forest University, where she teaches courses in African American and Caribbean literature. She is affiliated faculty in Environmental Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Her book Black Atlas: Geography and Flow in Nineteenth-Century African American Literature was published by Duke U.P. in 2015. Recent work has also appeared in WSQ: Women's Studies Quarterly; the Journal of American History; ELN; The Radical History Review; Discourse; and Nineteenth-Century Prose.


Ifeoma Nwankwo (Vanderbilt University)

Reconstructing Hope: African Americans and Latin America in the Long Nineteenth Century

In the wake of the Haitian Revolution, the War Between the States, and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, U.S. African Americans had reason to be hopeful about their future. They were being elected to public office in numbers never before seen, or allowed. This future was not to be, however. The backlash against Reconstruction ultimately brought about its death in the 1870s.  At the same time that Reconstruction was moving from hope to reality to shattered dream, the United States was expanding its political, military, economic, and social footprint in its Latin American “backyard.” The United States’ involvement in the region through the construction of the Panama Railroad (1850-1855) and Panama Canal  (1904-1914) are key examples of this intensified interventionism.

This essay reveals the ways in which U.S. exploits in Panama figured into African Americans’ sense of the avenues to the American Dream available to them after Reconstruction’s failure. In particular, it analyzes a collection of federal records on African American involvement in the U.S.’ Panama Canal endeavor housed at the National Archives. This multi-genre collection reveals the negotiations undertaken by African American federal employees battling to find a place and a voice in a moment characterized by increased anti-black violence not only in the United States, but also in Latin America. (One illustrative instance is the 1912 massacre of the members of the Independent Party of People of Color in Cuba.)

Readings focus on two specific areas. The first is African Americans’ stance toward the U.S. imperial mission in Panama. Did they envision themselves as part of or as apart from this undertaking? What terms do they use to describe their engagement? Are those terms different in government reports and personal correspondence? The second key focus area is their attitude toward non-U.S. Blacks they encounter while on the Isthmus. Do they understand themselves as distinct from British West Indians because of the latter’s affiliation with the British Empire? Is there a discernable language of racial solidarity? How do they articulate the divergences and convergences between U.S. and British imperial actions? Discussion of this second area is supplemented by close readings of select documents from three private collections. Through these readings, we gain a novel perspective on not only U.S. Empire in Latin America but also its impact on the meanings, mechanics, and manifestations of U.S. African Americans’ worldviews.


Biographical note

Ifeoma Kiddoe Nwankwo, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of English and American Studies at Vanderbilt University. Her work centers on intercultural and intergenerational relations, particularly as they surface in the literary texts, oral narratives, and popular music of Afro-descendants in the U.S., Caribbean, and Latin America. Her publications include Black Cosmopolitanism; “Bilingualism, Blackness, and Belonging,”; “Race and Representation in the Digital Humanities;” African Routes, Caribbean Roots, Latino Lives; Rhythms of the Afro-Atlantic World (co-edited with Mamadou Diouf); “Living the West Indian Dream” (forthcoming) and “Globally Engaged” Pedagogy, Research, and Creative Practice (co-edited with Jeff Hou and Jan Cohen-Cruz). She is founding director of the Voices from Our America and Wisdom of the Elders public scholarship projects.


Erik Redling (Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg)

Dialect Writing as Worldmaking: Zora Neale Hurston, Translation, and Dynamic Identity Constructions

Ever since Nelson Goodman introduced the concept of “worldmaking” in his seminal study Ways of Worldmaking (1978), critics have examined a wide array of ways of constructing different worlds ranging from colonial and neocolonial worldings to literary conceptions of alternative worlds. Dialect writing, however, has to my knowledge remained a neglected subject in this particular field of inquiry. In my paper, I argue that dialect writing inspired Zora Neale Hurston to develop a new way of perceiving her identity and place as an African American in early twentieth-century America. While many of her contemporary African American Harlemites (e.g., Alain Locke and Richard Wright) emphasized the need to give a voice to a specifically African American identity and culture, Zora Neale Hurston studied the process of translation as a model (or mode) for viewing the world and her identity. Drawing on her experience of translating immaterial ‘thoughts’ into multiple languages such as literary renderings of black vernacular speech and written Standard English, she created the notion of an immaterial self – a ‘raceless’ self (“At certain times I have no race, I am me,” qtd. in “How it Feels to Be Colored Me”) – that, depending on specific physical-situational contexts (e.g., is she sitting right next to a white man or is she listening to jazz music), turns her ‘raceless’ identity into a “colored” one. Rather than perceiving her identity solely in bodily terms or as a “performative accomplishment” (Judith Butler), Zora Neale Hurston discovered and explored through dialect writing and translation a shifting process of psychological-affective identity making which freed her from static dichotomous identity constructions (black vs. white) and enabled her to generate a world and literature of her own.


Nele Sawallisch (Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies)

Worldmaking, Disrupted. Black Community Building in the Early Nineteenth Century

Crossing the border into British North America would be, as Black refugees from slavery and oppression hoped, as though they would step into a different world: from enslaved to fugitive to freeman, they would be able to enjoy a life under the “Lion’s paw” and as the Queen’s loyal subjects. What we call Canada today was therefore a crucial destination for Black people’s imaginary and material worldmaking, both for its ideological leverage as the so-called Promised Land as well as for the concrete promises it seemed to hold for Black people, including equal protection before the law, the right to vote and hold property, and to become citizens. I have suggested elsewhere that we can understand such processes of worldmaking through the (life) writing of Black immigrants to Canada, and more particularly, through their reliance on different genealogies that anchor them in Black communities across borders and below the level of nation-states. This paper will be concerned with the ambiguous leader Josiah Henson, who once gained fame as the “real Uncle Tom” and was instrumental in the Dawn settlement/the British American Institute. His autobiographies and the documents on the Dawn controversy highlight both Canada’s fascinating role for Black refugees as well as the difficult processes of community building in the early nineteenth century.


Biographical note

Nele Sawallisch currently works as a post-doctoral lecturer at the Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies, where she received her PhD in 2017. Her first monograph Fugitive Borders: Black Canadian Cross-Border Literature at Mid-Nineteenth Century (transcript, 2019) discusses community-building processes and genealogies in autobiographical writing by formerly enslaved men from the 1850s in the North American borderland between the United States and Canada. She is co-editor of a special forum on “Transnational Black Politics and Resistance, from Enslavement to Obama” with the Journal of Transnational American Studies (10.1, 2019) and currently preparing another co-edited special issue on “Black Editorship in the Early Atlantic World” (Atlantic Studies).


Chet'la Sebree (Bucknell University)

 The Art of Interpretation

In the context of the Hemingses at Monticello, worldmaking was different than the worldmaking of many enslaved people who knew little beyond their local plantations. An entire generation of Hemings siblings traveled the east coast from Charlottesville to Philadelphia and abroad to Paris, providing them the opportunity to make worlds for themselves within and outside the confines of slavery. Through exhibits and interpretation at Monticello and in a poetry collection entitled Mistress, Bates and Sebree will explore what it means to make and interpret worlds for contemporary audiences out of the world nineteenth century African Americans made for themselves.


Biographical note

Chet’la Sebree is the Director of the Stadler Center for Poetry & Literary Arts and an Assistant Professor of English at Bucknell University. She is the author of Mistress, a poetry collection which explores black female experiences and representation through the lenses of a contemporary speaker and Sally Hemings. In support of this work, she has received fellowships from the Richard H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies, The MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and the Delaware Division of the Arts. Her work has been included in journals and anthologies including Early American Literature, Modern Language Studies, and Monticello in Mind: Fifty Contemporary Poets on Jefferson (University of Virginia Press, 2016), edited by Lisa Russ Spaar.


Winfried Siemerling (University of Waterloo)

Around 1852: Emigrationism, Canada, and Black Diasporic Worldmaking

This paper will focus on the year 1852 to examine what conclusions some of the key North American black thinkers had arrived at two years after the infamous 1850 United States fugitive slave law had created what for them was a different world. Instead of offering merely “tactical” resistance in the face of overwhelming oppression, black intellectuals including Mary Ann Shadd, Martin Delany, and Samuel Ringgold Ward responded with often large-scale strategic worldmaking of their own. Canada, while of crucial importance to these black leaders, played varying roles in their visions. This paper, then, will look at a variety of perspectives that sought to react in positive and often daring ways to a new situation, and will seek to place these undertakings in a historical moment that in retrospect still appears as a crucial cross-road of possibilities. 


Biographical note

Winfried Siemerling is Professor of English at the University of Waterloo and an Associate of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University. He won the Gabrielle Roy Prize for The Black Atlantic Reconsidered (2015). Earlier books include Canada and Its Americas (co-edited, 2010), The New North American Studies (2005, French translation 2010), and Discoveries of the Other (1994). He has contributed chapters to The Oxford Handbook of the African American Slave Narrative (2014), The Cambridge History of Postcolonial Literature (2012), and African American Literature in Transition (Cambridge UP, forthcoming).


Call for Papers

Four Presentation Slots for Early-Career Scholars: Work in Progress Presentations

Deadline: July 15, 2019

Download Call for Papers


Friday, October 11, Campus Neues Palais // Building 9 // Room 1.15

Time Event
10:00–10:30 Verena Adamik, Hannah Spahn, and Nicole Waller
10:30–11:00 Dirk Wiemann
On Worlding and Worldmaking
11:00–12:00 Ifeoma Nwankwo
Reconstructing Hope: African Americans and Latin America in the Long Nineteenth Century
12:00–13:30 Lunch (Mensa)
13:30–14:30 Judith Madera
Black Utopias: Modal Worlds and Movements
14:30–15:30 Anthony James Obst
(Work in Progress Presentation): The Long Nineteenth Century and Long Emancipation: Black Radical Tragic Worldmaking in the Wake of the Hatian Revolution
15:30–16:00 Coffee break
16:00–17:00 Heinrich Wilke
(Work in Progress Presentation): Refashioning the plantation and the ancient regime: Toussaint Louverture’s Labor Policies as Worldmaking
17:00–18:00 Chet’la Sebree, Niya Bates
The Art of Interpretation
20:00 Conference Dinner at Theaterklause

Saturday, October 12, Campus Neues Palais // Building 9 // Room 1.15

Time Event
10:00–11:00 Winfried Siemerling
Around 1852: Emigrationism, Canada, and Black Diasporic Worldmaking
11:00–12:00 Nele Sawallisch
Worldmaking, Disrupted: Black Community Building in the Early Nineteenth Century.
12:00–13:30 Lunch
13:30–14:30 Michael Drexler
Looking Forward/Looking Backward: African American Futures at a Historically Black College in West Virginia.
14:30–15:30 Johanna Heide
(Work in Progress Presentation): Re-claiming Herstory: Female Fugitives from Slavery and the Printed Wor(l)d
15:30–16:00 Coffee break
16:00–17:00 Helen A. Gibson
(Work in Progress Presentation): Joy, Terror, and Humiliation in Cars: Emotional Black Worldmaking at the Twilight of the Long Nineteenth Century
17:00–18:00 Erik Redling
Dialect Writing as Worldmaking: Zora Neale Hurston, Translation, and Dynamic Identity Constructions
18:15–18:45 Wrap-Up Discussion
19:00 Casual get together


The symposium will take place on October 11th and 12th 2019 at the University of Potsdam, Campus Neues Palais, Building 8, Room 1.15.

For more information, please check the campus map below.

Directions (general)

Campus Neues Palais is within walking distance of the train station "Potsdam Bahnhof Park Sanssouci" and the bus stop "Neues Palais".


Train connections from Berlin:

The train RE1 to >Brandenburg Bhf< passes through all major Berlin stations (Alexanderplatz, Friedrichstrasse, Hauptbahnhof, Zoologischer Garten, etc.) and stops directly at >Potsdam Bhf Park Sanssouci<.

Please note: The RE1 to >Magdeburg Bhf< does not stop at >Potsdam Bhf Park Sanssouci<.


Train connections from Potsdam Hbf (main station):

In addition to the RE1, both the trains RB20 (to >Oranienburg Bhf<) and RB21 (to either >Golm Bhf< or >Wustermark Bhf<) stop at >Potsdam Bhf Park Sanssouci<.


Bus lines to Campus Neues Palais

There are multiple bus lines coming in from Potsdam that have a stop on Campus Neues Palais. The bus station closest to the symposium venue is called >Neues Palais<.

Please consult the website of the joint public transportation system of Berlin and Potsdam (VBB) for an individual inquiry, and please consult the following individualized Google Maps for detailed directions.

Google Maps: General Directions to Campus Neues Palais.

Please consult this Google Maps for detailed directions to Campus Neues Palais.

Website: Joint public transportation system of Berlin and Potsdam (VBB)

Please consult this website for individual inquiries.

Directions: Symposium Hotel to Symposium Venue (Tickets for public transport will be provided by hotel!)

Steigenberger Hotel Sanssouci

You can take buses 605 or 606 from Steigenberger Hotel Sanssouci - bus stop "Luisenplatz-Süd/Park Sanssouci" (605 direction: Potsdam, Wissenschaftspark Golm; 606 direction: Potsdam, Alt-Golm ) to Symposium Venue - Potsdam, Neues Palais (estimated time of arrival: 15 minutes).

Otherwise you can take the bus 695 from the bus stop "Potsdam, Luisenplatz-Nord/Park Sanssouci" (direction: Potsdam, Pirschheide Bhf) to Potsdam, Neues Palais (estimated time of arrival: 20 minutes).

Please consult the google maps below for details.

Google Maps: Steigenberger Hotel Sanssouci Potsdam to Campus Neues Palais

Please consult this Google Maps for bus connections between the Steigenberger Hotel and Campus Neues Palais

Google Maps (Alternative Route): Steigenberger Hotel Sanssouci Potsdam to Campus Neues Palais

Please consult this Google Maps for bus connections between the Steigenberger Hotel and Campus Neues Palais

Campus map "Neues Palais"

Registration & Contact

There is no symposium fee, but please register until October 1st by sending us an E-Mail with your name and affiliation (if applicable).


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Prof. Dr. Nicole WalleR

Dr. Hannah Spahn

Verena Adamik

Organizational team:

Sebastian Jablonski

Anja Söyünmez

Yasmin Künze


Prof. Dr. Nicole Waller, Dr. Hannah Spahn, Verena Adamik


Campus Am Neuen Palais
Am Neuen Palais 10
Building 19, Room 0.16
14469 Potsdam