Dr. Nele Sawallisch (Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies/Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz): "The (Im-)Possible Families of Henry Bibb: Black Families between Slavery and Freedom"

Friday, May 3, 2019, 4:15-5:45 p.m., U5/01.17

Henry Walton Bibb (1815-1854) was one of the most important Black North Americans of the first half of the nineteenth century. Born into slavery in Kentucky and eventually self-emancipated through escape in 1840, he was an abolitionist lecturer and activist, author, editor and black historian. Bibb spent most of his free life in Upper Canada, where he launched the province’s first black newspaper, The Voice of the Fugitive (1851-1854), and labored continuously at shaping the future of Black people in North America. His autobiographical Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave (1849) can be read both as a classic example of the slave narrative tradition and a complex negotiation of family life, individuality, and the constraints of slavery. His text reveals the centrality of the family unit to Bibb and, despite the influences of white abolitionist Lucius C. Matlack on the Narrative, by extrapolation the importance of family relations to enslaved people, fugitives, and free people of color. It demonstrates slavery's brutal onslaught on the Black family under slavery, but moreover shows the forms of resistance used by Bibb and other Black North Americans to defend it. At the same time, the Narrative sheds light on the complex web of social and personal pressures Bibb was faced with as a husband and father when it came to holding on to his family and realizing his vision of emancipation.

Nele Sawallisch studied English, French, and Education in Mainz, Dijon, and Lennoxville, QC. She received a State Exam and an M.A. in American Studies in 2012 from the University of Mainz where she is currently working as a lecturer at the newly established Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies and serving as the assistant editor of the journal Amerikastudien/American Studies. Her monograph Fugitive Borders: Black Canadian Cross-Border Literature at Mid-Nineteenth Century (2019) explores how black autobiographies of the 1850s offer an alternative historiography for Canada before Confederation, and how these texts participate in textual community-building processes that undermine the self-image Canada has entertained as the Promised Land. Her current research project looks at comedic formats such as late-night shows and stand-up in the United States and their relationship to civil religion and the pedagogies of state narratives in the wake of the 2016 presidential election.