2024 Finalists for the Pauli Murray Book Prize in Black Intellectual History

The African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) is pleased to announce the finalists for the seventh annual Pauli Murray Book Prize for the best book in Black intellectual history. Named after lawyer, author, and women’s rights activist-intellectual Pauli Murray, this prize recognizes the best book concerning Black intellectual history (broadly conceived) published between January 1, 2023 and December 31, 2023 by a member of AAIHS. The winner of the 2024 Pauli Murray Book Prize will receive $1,000, a featured week-long roundtable on the book in Black Perspectives, and a featured interview published in Black Perspectives.  The award winner will be announced at the 2024 AAIHS Conference, which will be held from March 8-9, 2024. Here are the five finalists selected by this year’s fellowship committee.

R. J. Boutelle, The Race for America: Black Internationalism in the Age of Manifest Destiny (University of North Carolina Press, 2023)

As Manifest Destiny took hold in the national consciousness, what did it mean for African Americans who were excluded from its ambitions for an expanding American empire that would shepherd the Western Hemisphere into a new era of civilization and prosperity? R. J. Boutelle explores how Black intellectuals like Daniel Peterson, James McCune Smith, Mary Ann Shadd, Henry Bibb, and Martin Delany engaged this cultural mythology to theorize and practice Black internationalism. He uncovers how their strategies for challenging Manifest Destiny’s white nationalist ideology and expansionist political agenda constituted a form of disidentification—a deconstructing and reassembling of this discourse that marshals Black experiences as racialized subjects to imagine novel geopolitical mythologies and projects to compete with Manifest Destiny.

Employing Black internationalist, hemispheric, and diasporic frameworks to examine the emigrationist and solidarity projects that African Americans proposed as alternatives to Manifest Destiny, Boutelle attends to sites integral to US aspirations of hemispheric dominion: Liberia, Nicaragua, Canada, and Cuba. In doing so, Boutelle offers a searing history of how internalized fantasies of American exceptionalism burdened the Black geopolitical imagination that encouraged settler-colonial and imperialist projects in the Americas and West Africa.

Marlene L. Daut, Awakening the Ashes: An Intellectual History of the Haitian Revolution (University of North Carolina Press, 2023)

The Haitian Revolution was a powerful blow against colonialism and slavery, and as its thinkers and fighters blazed the path to universal freedom, they forced anticolonial, antislavery, and antiracist ideals into modern political grammar. The first state in the Americas to permanently abolish slavery, outlaw color prejudice, and forbid colonialism, Haitians established their nation in a hostile Atlantic World. Slavery was ubiquitous throughout the rest of the Americas and foreign nations and empires repeatedly attacked Haitian sovereignty. Yet Haitian writers and politicians successfully defended their independence while planting the ideological roots of egalitarian statehood.

In Awakening the Ashes, Marlene L. Daut situates famous and lesser-known eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Haitian revolutionaries, pamphleteers, and political thinkers within the global history of ideas, showing how their systems of knowledge and interpretation took center stage in the Age of Revolutions. While modern understandings of freedom and equality are often linked to the French Declaration of the Rights of Man or the US Declaration of Independence, Daut argues that the more immediate reference should be to what she calls the 1804 Principle that no human being should ever again be colonized or enslaved, an idea promulgated by the Haitians who, against all odds, upended French empire.

Joan Flores-Villalobos, The Silver Women: How Black Women’s Labor Made the Panama Canal (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2023)

The construction of the Panama Canal is typically viewed as a marvel of American ingenuity. What is less visible, and less understood, is the project’s dependence on the labor of Black migrant women. The Silver Women shifts the focus of this monumental endeavor to the West Indian women who travelled to Panama, inviting readers to place women’s intimate lives, choices, grief, and ambition at the center of the economic and geopolitical transformation created by the construction of the Panama Canal and U.S. imperial expansion.

Joan Flores-Villalobos argues that Black West Indian women made the canal construction possible by providing the indispensable everyday labor of social reproduction. West Indian women built a provisioning economy that fed, housed, and cared for the segregated Black West Indian labor force, in effect subsidizing the construction effort and the racial calculus that separated pay in silver for Black workers and gold for white Americans. But while also subject to racial discrimination and segregation, West Indian women mostly worked outside the umbrella of U.S. canal authorities. They did not hold contracts, had little access to official services and wages, and received pay in both silver and gold. From this position, they found ways to skirt, and at times subvert, the legal, moral, and economic parameters imperial authorities sought to impose on the migrant workforce. West Indian women developed important strategies of claims-making, kinship, community building, and market adaptation that helped them navigate the contradictions and violence of U.S. empire. In the meantime, these strategies of social reproduction nurtured further West Indian migrations, linking Panama to places like Harlem and Santiago de Cuba. The Silver Women is thus a history of Black women’s labor of social reproduction as integral to U.S. imperial infrastructure, the global Caribbean diaspora, and women’s own survival.

Grace Sanders Johnson, White Gloves, Black Nation: Women, Citizenship, and Political Wayfaring in Haiti (University of North Carolina Press, 2023)

This ambitious transnational history considers Haitian women’s political life during and after the United States occupation of Haiti (1915–34). The two decades following the occupation were some of the most politically dynamic and promising times in Haiti’s modern history, but the history of women’s political organizing in this period has received scant attention. Tracing elite and middle-class women’s activism and intellectual practice from the countryside of Kenscoff, Haiti, to Philadelphia, the Belgian Congo, and back to Port-au-Prince, this book tells the story of Haitian women’s essential role as co-curators of modern Haitian citizenship.

Set in a period when national belonging was articulated in philosophies of African authenticity, revolutionary nostalgia, and working-class politics, Grace Sanders Johnson considers how an emerging educated and professional class of women who understood themselves as descendants of the Haitian Revolution established alternative claims to citizenship that included, but were not limited to, suffrage and radicalism. Sanders Johnson argues that these women’s political practice incorporated strategic class performance, extravagant sartorial sensibilities, and an insistence on self-promotion and preservation that challenged the exceptional trope of the martyred male revolutionary hero. Bringing her subjects vividly to life, she reveals their politics of wayfaring, moving deliberately if sometimes ineffectively through the radical milieu of the twentieth century.

J.T. Roane, Dark Agoras: Insurgent Black Social Life and the Politics of Place (New York University Press, 2023)

In this book, author J.T. Roane shows how working-class Black communities cultivated two interdependent modes of insurgent assembly—dark agoras—in twentieth century Philadelphia. He investigates the ways they transposed rural imaginaries about and practices of place as part of their spatial resistances and efforts to contour industrial neighborhoods. In acts that ranged from the mundane acts of refashioning intimate spaces to expressly confrontational and liberatory efforts to transform the city’s social and ecological arrangement, these communities challenged the imposition of Progressive and post-Progressive visions for urban order seeking to enclose or displace them.

Under the rubric of dark agoras Roane brings together two formulations of collectivity and belonging associated with working-class Black life. While on their surface diametrically opposed, the city’s underground—its illicit markets, taverns, pool halls, unlicensed bars, as well as spaces housing illicit sex and informal sites like corners associated with the economically and socially disreputable–constituted a spatial and experiential continuum with the city’s set apart—its house meetings, storefronts, temples, and masjid, as well as the extensive spiritually appropriated architectures of the interwar mass movements that included rural land experiments as well as urban housing, hotels, and recreational facilities. Together these sites incubated Black queer urbanism, or dissident visions for urban life challenging dominant urban reform efforts and their modes of producing race, gender, and ultimately the city itself. Roane shows how Black communities built a significant if underappreciated terrain of geographic struggle shaping Philadelphia between the Great Migration and Black Power. This fascinating book will help readers appreciate the importance of Black spatial imaginaries and worldmaking in shaping matters of urban place and politics.

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