F20 Black Atlantic: Resources, Pedagogy, and Scholarship on the 18th Century Black Atlantic

Chris Bonner's The Remaking of the Republic

This week’s required activity was a pleasant surprise. Christopher Bonner, the author of Remaking the Republic: Black Politics and the Creation of American Citizenship and an alumnus of Howard University’s Department of History, was a friend and classmate during my undergraduate years at Howard. Chris has since become Dr. Bonner, having earned a doctorate in history from Yale University and secured a tenure-track Associate Professorship at the University of Maryland, all before the age of 35. Specializing in nineteenth-century African American history in the United States, Dr. Bonner studies race and ethnicity in early America, African American politics and culture, slavery and emancipation across the Atlantic world, and the political and cultural transformations of the United States during the nineteenth century.

Published this past March, Dr. Bonner’s first book examines the roles that free black Americans played in legal transformations that occurred during the mid-nineteenth century in the United States. His talk focused on what he called the “big ideas that move through the book”—namely, that Black people from across antebellum free states drew upon and revised the concept of citizenship in their public demands for rights and civil protections, and that their political work largely shaped the understanding of what it meant to be a citizen in this country. Furthermore, Black protest activities were instrumental in the development of the idea of citizenship into a legal status that brought individuals into relation with the federal government through the contractual conveyance of certain rights and obligations. Dr. Bonner’s book shows the connections between antebellum black politics and Reconstruction-era constitutional developments, and his talk further extended that connection to current protest movements that continue to call for upholding the civil rights of Black citizens. He thus engages specific forms of Black politics and explores the ways black people throughout the history of this country have grappled with the limitations and shortcomings of formal legal changes in the meaning and promises of citizenship.

Dr. Bonner’s book casts citizenship as contested ground as it tells stories, mined from the archival record, about Black Americans pushing their way into conversations on citizenship in early nineteenth century. He also sheds light on a particular aspect of Black life in early nineteenth century: the slow creation of free Black populations as slavery was abolished in the in northern states. Still, even in their freedom, Blacks in these states were restricted by legal and social codes, and Dr. Bonner’s book examines citizenship and the pursuit of justice as a response to restrictions. He ended the talk with a powerful quote from his book: “No law said Black Americans could not be citizens, so they insisted that they were.”

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