African Americas Initiative

In 2019, the John Carter Brown Library launched a new initiative: the African Americas Initiative. The JCB has, since its very inception as a private collection, been interested in the history of Africans in the Americas and the history of the slave trade. The Library’s founding collector, John Carter Brown, never shied away from including images of the violence and horrors of the slave trade as part of his collection. Indeed, in one of the first massive shipments of books and pamphlets from Europe in 1846, there was a haunting image not only of the packed hull of a slave ship, but of an enslaved African woman giving birth – a symbol of the centrality of reproduction and women’s labor in both senses to the project of colonialism in the Americas. In 1988, the Library sponsored an exhibition entitled “Africans in the New World, 1493-1834.” That exhibition – which we will be making available soon on our website – was timed for the 350th anniversary of the first arrival of African-descended peoples in New England, and the centenary of the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888. Today, as the four-hundredth-anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans in Virginia has elicited a moment of reflection – but also significant discussions about the deeper presence of Africans in the Americas – it is another moment for us to discuss what role the John Carter Brown Library can play in perpetuating the memory of this early history of the African Americas.

The African Americas Initiative – a title suggested by a member of the Library’s Academic Advisory Committee, Dixa Ramirez, professor of American Studies here at Brown – is not only about Africans in the Americas, not only about African Americana (i.e., books that connect Africa to the Americas), but also about the African Americas – that is, the way that African cultures and African peoples contributed to and also appropriated part(s) of the Americas and made them their own. Just like Spanish America or British America, this initiative argues that America was partly African: that is, that it was partly the result of African social, cultural, intellectual, and political influence, just like the European parts of the world that we are more familiar with when using adjectives to describe the Americas.

What does this initiative hope to achieve in practice?

·      An annual lecture;

·      short-term fellowships;

·      a scholar-in-residence program;

·      teaching fellowships;

·      new acquisitions 

·      professional development opportunities for students and librarians;

·      undergraduate research opportunities;

·      artists in residence;

·      connections with other Brown-based centers, including Africana Studies, the CSSJ, American Studies, and CSREA. 

Noted historian Herman Bennett (CUNY Graduate Center) inaugurated this initiative in October, 2019 with a lecture, which can be viewed here, on his most recent book, African Kings and Black Slaves (Philadelphia, 2019). Other activities related to the history of Africa, Africans in the Americas, and the history of slavery and the slave trade throughout the Americas will be planned for the 2020-2021 academic year and beyond.