Call for Papers for a Panel on Pursuing Happiness in African American Slave Narratives at the 2017 Association française d’études américaines (AFEA) / French Association of American Studies Annual Conference (Strasbourg, 6-9 June)

What could be more foreign to the institution of slavery than the notion of happiness? Such was what Frederick Douglass implied when he wrote about his time on William Freeland’s farm in his second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) : “For much of the happiness—or absence of misery—with which I passed this year with Mr. Freeland, I am indebted to the genial temper and ardent friendship of my brother slaves.” For want of anything better, “absence of misery” was what the slave could yearn for in an oppressive and brutal system based on the exploitation of man by man. If slaves worked for someone’s happiness, it was that of the white master, as noted by Thomas Jefferson, probably the most famous slaveholder in American history (see Lucia Stanton, “Those Who Labor for My Happiness”: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, 2012).
Yet this panel seeks to uncover and address the “pursuit of happiness” in African American slave narratives. Even though African American slaves, since the origins of the American nation, had been placed at the margins of mankind, and therefore deprived of the inalienable rights—“freedom” and “the pursuit of happiness” in particular—listed in the Declaration of Independence, they were able to embrace the revolutionary ideals and the principles of liberty and equality embedded in the Declaration as their own best hope for freedom and/or better treatment: “And I believed then, as I believe now,” Henry Bibb wrote, “that every man has a right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave, 1849). Frederick Douglass, Solomon Northup (Twelve Years a Slave,1853), and William and Ellen Craft (Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, 1860), among others, also quoted the Declaration of Independence in their narratives. It seems therefore appropriate to examine the different forms this pursuit of happiness could take. Running away, a clear declaration of independence from the master, made it possible for the slaves to pursue their political and social happiness in the free States of the North or beyond the confines of the United States (in the Western territories, in Canada, in the British Isles or other European countries, in the British West Indies, in Haiti or Liberia). For the slave more than anyone else, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were closely intertwined. The search for relative happiness could also be one of the goals pursued by the slaves who did not flee, as Douglass suggested in the aforementioned quotation; solidarity between “brother slaves,” family life, self-fulfillment in the clandestine study of reading and writing were all forms of resistance and expression of slaves’ pursuit of their own happiness—which was nothing like the cheerful contentment that whites perceived in the slaves’ songs they wrongfully considered “as evidence of their . . . happiness” (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, 1845).
We thus invite participants to consider these various conceptions of happiness in slave narratives. This panel will feature papers on classic slave narratives as well as on alternative sources. Recent scholarship has emphasized that slave testimonies took many forms beyond that of the self-written, separately published, book-length narrative, so presenters are encouraged to address slave testimony from a broad range of sources, including traditional archives, Works Progress Administration (WPA) interviews, newspapers, diaries or memoirs, short stories published in the press, legal documents, petitions, etc., to better understand what happiness might have meant for the men and women who labored under the yoke of slavery. We encourage papers that draw from diverse fields including but not limited to: African American studies, literature, history, civilization and/or cultural studies.

For consideration for this panel, please submit an abstract (250 words) and a brief bio to both Claire Bourhis-Mariotti ( and Michaël Roy ( by January 15, 2017.

For further information about the French Association of American studies conference, please consult the AFEA website at