Almost Dead: Slavery and Social Rebirth in the Black Urban Atlantic

Time Period
1623 to 1763
1764 to 1824
1825 to 1860
1861 to 1876
Media Type
Black History
Politics & Government
Dr. Michael Lawrence Dickinson

On August 17, 2023, historian Dr. Michael Lawrence Dickinson discussed his book on the Atlantic slave trade and how the thousands of captives who lived, bled, and resisted in the Black Urban Atlantic survived to form dynamic communities. In Almost Dead: Slavery and Social Rebirth in the Black Urban Atlantic, Dr. Dickinson uses cities with close commercial ties to shed light on similarities, variations, and linkages between urban Atlantic slave communities in mainland America and the Caribbean. The study adopts the perspectives of those enslaved to reveal that, in the eyes of the enslaved, the distinctions were often of degree rather than kind as cities throughout the Black Urban Atlantic remained spaces for Black oppression and resilience. The tenets of subjugation remained all too similar, as did captives’ need to stave off social death and hold on to their humanity. Almost Dead argues that urban environments provided unique barriers to and avenues for social rebirth: the process by which African-descended peoples reconstructed their lives individually and collectively after forced exportation from West Africa. This was an active process of cultural remembrance, continued resistance, and communal survival. It was in these urban slave communities―within the connections between neighbors and kinfolk―that the enslaved found the physical and psychological resources necessary to endure the seemingly unendurable. Whether sites of first arrival, commodification, sale, short-term captivity, or lifetime enslavement, the urban Atlantic shaped and was shaped by Black lives.

Dr. Michael Lawrence Dickinson is an associate professor of African American history at Virginia Commonwealth University. He was a 2019–20 Barra Sabbatical Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s McNeil Center for Early American Studies. His research interests include enslaved Black life, comparative slavery, Black Atlantic studies, and urban history.

The content and opinions expressed in these presentations are solely those of the speaker and not necessarily of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.

Want to listen to an audio-only version of this lecture? Listen now on SoundCloud.