Liberalism, Emancipation, and the Atlantic World

By Adriana Chira, Black Perspectives

George Hackett’s trajectory simmered with the tensions that defined the Age of Emancipations. Hackett was born at the turn of the nineteenth century at a political crossroads—in Baltimore, an Atlantic port city connecting the US North, where gradual emancipation was underway, with an expanding plantation-based southern economy. Coming into the world in 1806, he would have grown up hearing radical liberal promises of inclusion. But as a mature man, he would have also learnt how such promises could fail. Hackett would have witnessed one arc of the nineteenth century; while the century began with Haitian independence, it closed with brutal policies of exclusion across most post-emancipation societies. With a new export boom taking place in the Global South after the 1850s, elites doubled down their efforts to access cheap labor by instituting new regimes of coercion, supposedly in the name of progress. If promises of equality to Afro-descendants had marked the late eighteenth century, one hundred years later, across American societies, governments approached equality as a horizon that would become accessible only once the socially marginalized were “prepared.” But Hackett did not just watch this arc happen before his eyes. Indeed, his story disturbs this seemingly straightforward teleology, because it reveals the world of struggle that Afro-descendants put up to create fissures within an incredibly resilient political-economic system of exploitation. As a sailor and steward, Hackett travelled from Mexico, to Cuba, Brazil, and Chile.

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