Reception of Biographical Dictionary of Enslaved Black People

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In honour of Black History Month, we are highlighting Biographical Dictionary of Enslaved Black People in the Maritimes by Harvey Amani Whitfield. This important book sheds light on more than 1,400 brief life histories of mostly enslaved Black people, with the goal of recovering their individual lives. Read Whitfield’s experience with the reception of this book, as well as excerpts from reviews of the book below.

“As we approach the one-year anniversary of the publication of my Biographical Dictionary of Enslaved Black People in the Maritimes, I would like to take a few moments to write about the response the book has received. Frankly, I have been shocked by the overwhelmingly positive responses to my book ranging from scholars to non-academics. Usually academic books are either ignored by the wider public or taken apart by a hostile review in an academic journal. I have enjoyed the opposite response. I have been invited to give talks at places ranging from theological institutes to CBC Radio to Brigham Young University. The Hill Times named the dictionary to the 100 best books published in 2022. So, I am grateful and appreciative that the book has received such positive attention.

Perhaps the most special event was the book launch at the University of New Brunswick in the spring of 2022 where several people spoke about my book, and I received a letter of appreciation from the Lieutenant Governor. I think that was the most special moment of my career and the most definitive part of how the book has been received.”

-Harvey Amani Whitfield

What people are saying:

The Biographical Dictionary of Enslaved Black People in the Maritimes will enliven other scholarship in the field, informing studies of social and political history in the region; studies of gender and enslavement, work, and resistance; and studies of family connection, migration, and movement. But the most striking scholarly achievement of the work lies not only in its gleaning of detail from existing sources, but in the choice of genre. A biographical dictionary is a literary form with a particular racial and gendered history, and while it is meant to carry weight and authority as a reference work, it ordinarily operates best when we turn to it with a name in hand. Whitfield reappropriates the genre. His entries, organized alphabetically by name, draw attention to what names can tell us about the social and political condition in which enslaved lives were lived.”

– Nina Reid-Maroney, H-Net: Social Sciences and Humanities Online

“…to reduce Whitfield’s most recent publication to a list of enslaved people he uncovered during his research would be to overlook the work’s grander significance. More than a list of names and descriptions, Whitfield’s work is, as Donald Wright notes in the Foreword, ‘a moral project’ that, in Whitfield’s words, ‘Bears witness to [enslaved people’s] existence’ and ‘affirm[s] the notion that all of these slaves were unique individuals, despite the efforts of their owners and the wider British Atlantic world to dehumanize them’ (xiv, xxiii). Whitfield’s study is a deeply humanizing endeavour. Moreso than similar works, Whitfield’s Biographical Dictionary of Enslaved Black People in the Maritimes restores slavery to the history of pre-Confederation Atlantic Canada while also decentering whiteness in the process to highlight the unique experiences of enslaved people throughout the region.

-G. Patrick O’Brien, Journal of New Brunswick Studies

“Containing a foreword by historian Donald Wright and Whitfield’s introduction, which is both a guide to the dictionary and a history of slavery in the Maritimes, this book offers a reimagining of how historians write about enslaved people. The book contains 1,465 entries, each about an individual enslaved person in the Maritimes. There are no entries for enslavers or slave traders, making enslaved people the dictionary’s only subjects. As such, by its very nature, the Biographical Dictionary offers a radical reimagining of the Black Canadian past.”

-Jared Ross Hardesty, Canadian Historical Review


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