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Dr Tomos Hughes, Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship

Shadowing the Master Class: Proslavery in the Black Radical Imagination

“I am writing an essay on slavery and an incoherent one” – these words, uttered by the slaveholding protagonist of W.E.B. Du Bois’ unpublished experimental novel, Scorn: A Romance (1905), comment self-reflexively on a form of imaginative writing in which black authors drew inspiration from their engagement with the often neglected world of speculative pro-slavery thought.

Dr Tomos Hughes' Fellowship entitled “Shadowing the Master Class” uncovers the contradictory utopian dreamworlds of nineteenth-century pro-slavery print culture in the USA, and asks what it means to take seriously black radical writers’ creative engagement with this understudied tradition.

By attending to the way that nineteenth-century writers from Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass and Pauline Hopkins, to twentieth-century author-intellectuals like Du Bois, C.L.R James and Arna Bontemps articulated their own anti-slavery and anti-racist worlds by creatively re-voicing the desires and anxieties of reactionary dreamers, the project unearths a precarious literary form which catalysed developments in black radical thought concerning the relationship between slavery, colonialism and capitalism.

Recent cultural and historical scholarship stresses the dynamic, capitalist character of Atlantic slavery. This work has led to a revision of the place of pro-slavery thought in U.S. history. What was once considered a moribund and parochial tradition has been reimagined as a cosmopolitan intellectual culture which reveals its continuous presence in modern racial capitalism.

Building on this work, Dr Hughes will trace a literary-intellectual encounter that suggests a different account of (pro)slavery’s place in modern life and thought. What black radicals discovered in slaveholders’ conceptions of time, space and history was an anxious utopianism characterised by the difficulty of narrating slavery’s dynamic future.

Title page for “Southern Literary Messenger” (1863) - a prominent literary periodical which gave space to pro-slavery speculative fiction and expansionist pro-slavery writing between 1834 and 1864.

W.E.B. Du Bois, a key figure in the literary and political tradition explored in the project.

Dr Hughes will explore this cultural encounter at three historical moments:

  • Between 1835 and 1862, the high-point of proslavery expansionism

  • Between 1865 and the turn of the twentieth century, as white supremacy was reconstructed in the wake of emancipation

  • The 1930s, when black intellectuals on the Left reimaged slavery’s relationship to capitalism and colonialism.

Foregrounding the anachronistic, parochial and local time-spaces of pro-slavery cosmopolitanism, writers in these moments theorised the periphery of the capitalist world-system as a vanguard of socio-economic crisis and contradiction.

The project also pursues slavery’s relationship to literary form. Since the 1980s at least, scholars have attended to slavery’s spectral presence in American literature: a product of the institution’s elided but foundational place in U.S. liberal-capitalism. “Shadowing the Master Class” proposes an alternative account of how and why slavery became spectral for a new era, one characterised not by ascendant liberalism and transnationalism, but resurgent ethnonationalism and capitalist stagnation.

By excavating proslavery futures which were haunted by their failure to transcend borders of time and place, black radical thinkers developed accounts of race, crisis and peripherality that illuminate our own age.