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From Slavery to Citizenship: The Case of Toussaint in New York

February 28, 2018
12:30 PM - 02:00 PM
River Campus, Humanities Center, Conference Room D

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Annette Gabriel-Joseph, University of Michigan

Annette will examine the idea of citizenship through the life of Pierre Toussaint, an enslaved man from Saint-Domingue who arrived in New York City as part of the household of Jean Bérard, a French planter fleeing the Haitian Revolution.

Toussaint later became an acclaimed hairdresser, drawing clients from the wealthiest French families in New York City. Throughout his life in New York City, Toussaint was a prominent economic actor who retained close ties to Saint-Domingue and France.

In reading his biography and correspondence, I argue that by crafting an extensive network through epistolary exchanges with interlocutors in several cities including New Orleans, Trinidad, Havana, Petionville, Montreal, Rome, and Bordeaux, Toussaint articulated a particular transatlantic citizenship that subverted some of the restrictions imposed by his status as a slave and a refugee. Specifically, his movement from slavery to freedom, and his engagement with New York City through acts of public philanthropy, allowed him to occupy a dual insider/outsider position.

In navigating this dual status, Toussaint engaged in a process of self-fashioning at an individual level, and was involved in fashioning modern definitions of freedom and citizenship, in a period when these ideas were in formation.

Sponsored by the Dept. of Modern Languages and Cultures, the Margert P. Morey fund, and the Frederick Douglass Institute for African and African-American Studies.

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Category: Speaker Series and Conferences