Year of Publication

2013

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

College

Arts and Sciences

Department

History

First Advisor

Dr. Joanne Pope Melish

Abstract

This dissertation examines the constructed racial identities of African American settlers in colonial Liberia as they traversed the Atlantic between the United States and West Africa during the first half of the nineteenth century. In one of the great testaments that race is a social construction, the West African neighbors and inhabitants of Liberia, who conceived of themselves as “black,” recognized the significant cultural differences between themselves and these newly-arrived Americans and racially categorized the newcomers as “white.” This project examines the ramifications for these African American settlers of becoming simultaneously white and black through their Atlantic mobility. This is not to suggest that those African Americans who relocated to Liberia somehow desired to be white or hoped to “pass” as white after their arrival in Africa. Instead, the Americo-Liberians utilized their African whiteness to lay claim to an exotic, foreign identity that also escaped associations of primitivism.

This project makes several significant contributions to scholarship on the colonization movement, whiteness, and Atlantic world. Importantly for scholarship on Liberia, it reestablishes the colony as but one evolving point within the Atlantic world instead of its usual interpretative place as the end of a transatlantic journey. Whether as disgruntled former settlers, or paid spokesmen for the American Colonization Society (ACS), or visitors returning to childhood abodes, or emancipators looking to free families from the chains of slavery, or students seeking medical degrees, Liberian settlers returned to the United States and they were remarkably uninterested in returning to their formerly downtrodden place in American society. This project examines the “tools” provided to Americo-Liberians by their African residence to negotiate a new relationship with the white inhabitants of the United States. These were not just metaphorical arguments shouted across the Atlantic Ocean and focusing on the experiences of Americo-Liberians in the United States highlights that these “negotiations” had practical applications for the lives of settlers in both the United States and Africa. The African whiteness of the settlers would function as a bargaining chip when they approached that rhetorical bargaining table.

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