Cassander L. Smith

Jan 21, 2024

Race and Respectability in an Early Black Atlantic

Louisiana State University Press 2023

Race and Respectability in an Early Black Atlantic (LSU Press, 2023) by Dr. Cassander L. Smith examines the means through which people of African descent embodied tenets of respectability as a coping strategy to navigate enslavement and racial oppression in the early Black Atlantic world. The term “respectability politics” refers to the way members of a minoritized population adopt the customs and manners of a dominant culture in order to gain visibility and combat negative stereotypes about their subject group. Today respectability politics can be seen in how those within and outside Black communities police the behaviour of Black celebrities, critique protest movements, and celebrate accomplishments by people of African descent who break racial barriers.

To study the origins of the complicated relationship between race and respectability, Dr. Smith shows that early American literatures reveal Black communities engaging with issues of respectability from the very beginning of the transatlantic slave trade. Concerns about character and comportment influenced the literary production of Black Atlantic communities, particularly in the long eighteenth century. Uncovering the central importance of respectability as a theme shaping the literary development of cultures throughout the early Black Atlantic, Smith illuminates the mechanics of respectability politics in a range of texts, including poetry, letters, and life writing by Phillis Wheatley, Olaudah Equiano, and expatriates on the west coast of Africa in Sierra Leone.

Through these early Black texts, Race and Respectability in an Early Black Atlantic considers respectability politics as a malleable strategy that has both energized and suppressed Black cultures for centuries.


This interview was conducted by Dr. Miranda Melcher whose forthcoming book focuses on post-conflict military integration, understanding treaty negotiation and implementation in civil war contexts, with qualitative analysis of the Angolan and Mozambican civil wars.

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Miranda Melcher

Miranda Melcher (Ph.D., Defense Studies, Kings College, London) studies post-conflict military integration, understanding treaty negotiation and implementation in civil war contexts, with deep analysis of the Angolan and Mozambican civil wars.

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