My thesis analyses the legacy of formerly enslaved African Americans on British society and the myriad ways they resisted British racism. Individuals such as Frederick Douglass, Moses Roper, William and Ellen Craft, Henry ‘Box’ Brown and Josiah Henson used a variety of different performative techniques to counter racial stereotypes that people of African descent were inferior. They exploited abolitionist networks and the emerging industrialism in British society to travel thousands of miles and give hundreds of lectures.
African Americans engaged in a strategy I term ‘adaptive resistance’, a multi-pronged oppositional strategy enacted via a medium of performance, by which African Americans challenged racial and gender stereotypes and won support for abolition. This resistance strategy employed both assimilation and dissonance as African Americans worked to secure their political agenda. They incorporated mimicry, minstrelsy, anglophilia, and exhibitions of their scars into their performances to create an aspect of the familiar to appeal to British audiences. To do this, black activists used language, images and actions as their weapons.
Black activists also practiced deliberate dissent against typical Victorian norms, from rejecting racism and racial science, asserting black masculinity and refusing to downplay the violence of slavery. They could use both in the same lecture, walking a tense tightrope between the two, negotiating and pushing the boundaries of both to fight traditional racial stereotypes.