March 8, 2022
‘Almost Dead,’ by VCU history professor, reveals how the urban Atlantic was shaped by Black lives
The book uses the words, thoughts and deeds of captives to reveal how urban environments in Anglo-America impacted and were affected by African descended people.
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“Almost Dead: Slavery and Social Rebirth in the Black Urban Atlantic, 1680-1807,” a forthcoming book by Michael Dickinson, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of History in the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences, explores how thousands of enslaved Black people between the late 17th century and the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade formed dynamic urban communities in mainland America and the Caribbean.
Dickinson, whose research focuses on comparative slavery, the Atlantic slave trade and early African American history, worked on the book as part of a Barra Sabbatical Fellowship at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies. Dickinson recently discussed the book, which will be published on May 1 by the University of Georgia Press.
What inspired you to write "Almost Dead"? What led you to want to explore the history of urban slave communities in mainland America and the Caribbean?
What inspired me to write the book was reading the testimonies of enslaved people. Their stories and lived realities brought to light an interconnected world where cities throughout the Atlantic were linked by Black lives in ways that I believe deserves far more attention. In fact, the title was taken from the testimony of an enslaved man and Revolutionary War veteran named Jeffrey Brace when he first arrived in the Americas at an Atlantic city aboard a slave ship from West Africa in the 1750s.
How did you go about researching this topic?
Again, this project really began with the testimonies of the enslaved, so I wanted to make sure that their voices were at the forefront of the book. Essentially, I let their stories lead me and push me in my effort to help others better understand the world of the enslaved. How did captives envision the trials and triumphs of their lives? How did they work to survive slavery psychologically, socially and culturally? And what other sources can I use to uncover their resilience in the face of continued oppression? That was very much my approach to the study in order to prioritize Black perspectives and historical experiences.
How would you describe the book's central argument? And what does it add to our understanding of early American history and Black history?
“Almost Dead” examines how the thousands of captives who lived, bled and resisted in the urban Atlantic survived to form dynamic communities and hold on to their humanity in a process of social rebirth. In urban spaces, African descended people reconstructed their lives and formed new communities after forced exportation from West Africa. In these spaces, social rebirth was the vehicle through which enslaved individuals rebuilt their lives, reconstituted their social realities and held on to their cultures in the face of continued oppression. This book uses the words, thoughts and deeds of captives to reveal how urban environments in Anglo-America impacted and were impacted by African descended peoples.
What do you hope readers walk away from the book with?
I want readers to take away a better understanding of the spectrum of human emotion that bondspeople traversed throughout their captivity. I want those who engage with the book to see captives and the cities they inhabited as multivalent and multidimensional. Furthermore, I want readers to see and comprehend the constant efforts of captives to endure, resist and rebuild families, communities and cultures. Simply put, I want to remind readers of the humanity of those enslaved.
Anything else you'd like to share about the book?
One part of the book that I am particularly excited about is the epilogue, which examines conversations with two descendants of Jeffrey Brace, the enslaved man whose narrative is featured heavily in the book and whose words supplied the book’s title. Our discussions provide a rare opportunity to think deeply about the continued legacies and afterlives of slavery.
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