I am a specialist in early African American and African Diaspora history, focusing on late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Black culture, political consciousness, and resistance movements. My first monograph, African or American?: Black Identity and Political Activism in New York City, 1784-1861, explores Black culture, identity, and political activism during the early national and antebellum eras. I am also the co-editor of two collections, “We Shall Independent Be:” African American Place-Making and the Struggle to Claim Space in the United States and the Encyclopedia of African American History, and I am the author of the widely read op-ed piece, “The Birth of a Nation is an Epic Fail,” which appeared in The Nation.
My newest research project, which will become my third monograph, is tentatively titled “How We Got Here: Slavery and the Making of the Modern Police State.” Intended for a general audience, this project argues that modern-day systems of policing, surveillance, and punitive control of Black communities are traceable to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when white people desperately sought to control a large unfree population who refused to submit to their enslavement. Despite growing public awareness that mass incarceration has its roots in slavery, and that racial bias infects all aspects of our criminal justice system, our nation has yet to reckon with the reality that contemporary systems of policing and mass criminalization have powerful, significant histories that originated in white fear—not merely of Black people, but also of Black resistance and the very notion of Black freedom. Black people’s desire for liberation and the inevitability of Black resistance haunted white people, driving them to extreme measures. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, white Americans lived in a constant state of terror, nervously worrying when and where the next uprising would occur. To curb their fears, white authorities enacted laws to monitor and control Black people’s movements, interactions, and even their cultural activities. Gripped with anxiety, theypassed a network of laws, policies, and social practices, such as slave patrols, that remain endemic in how this nation still fears Black Americans as violent, criminal, and untrustworthy. Creating a precedent for state policing and social control that tormented future generations of Black people in America, colonial, state, and federal authorities implemented a complex web of legal codes, patrols, and militias that monitored and governed Black people’s lives in sickening detail, regulating their movement and ensuring that whites felt empowered to use all means—legal and extralegal—to control Black lives. Ultimately, this project argues that if we ever hope to defeat and destroy the systems of social control that plague Black people’s lives, we must have an honest reckoning with the omnipresent white fear that has created, sustained, and fortified them. My research on this topic has already gained significant interest, as a portion of it will be published in a forthcoming chapter co-authored with Michelle Alexander (author of The New Jim Crow) in the much-anticipated New York Times book publication, 1619.
I have also recently completed another book, "Fear of a Black Republic: How Haitian Sovereignty Inspired the Birth of Black Internationalism” which is forthcoming with the University of Illinois Press. Opening in 1804, with the declaration of Haitian independence, this manuscript reveals how the struggle for Haitian sovereignty inspired U.S. black activists to develop a transnational political consciousness and to shape U.S. foreign policy towards African diasporic nations. It also exposes why the U.S. government denied Haiti’s sovereignty for several decades, how U.S. black leaders pressured the U.S. government for changes in its foreign policy towards Haiti, and what the debate over Haitian independence revealed about the larger battle over race and slavery throughout the Atlantic World. To learn more about this project, click the link to the right.
I have been fortunate to receive several prestigious fellowships, including the Ford Foundation Senior Fellowship, and I have given considerable service to the discipline. Currently, I am the President of the Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora (ASWAD), and an Executive Council member of the National Council for Black Studies (NCBS). I also serve on the Advisory Councils for the Journal of African American History, The Black Scholar, the International Journal for Africana Studies, and the Harvey Goldberg Series for Understanding and Teaching History.
I received my B.A. from Stanford University and my M.A. and Ph.D. from Cornell University. During my career, I have won several significant awards including the coveted University Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching and the University Distinguished Diversity Enhancement Award at Ohio State University (OSU).
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