Brooklyn College, NYU/AD
Gunja SenGupta is a professor of History at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the author of two books, From Slavery to Poverty: The Racial Origins of Welfare in New York, 1840-1918, and For God and Mammon: Evangelicals and Entrepreneurs, Masters and Slaves in Territorial Kansas, as well as numerous articles in journals like the American Historical Review, the Journal of African American (formerly Negro) History, Civil War History and Nka: A Journal of Contemporary African Art. She is currently co-authoring a book (with Awam Amkpa, and funded by grants from the Whiting, Wolfe, Tow, and Mellon foundations) on comparative histories of slavery and abolition in the nineteenth-century Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds, as well as a project on Black Atlantic history on film.
The Blackamoor as Voyager: Re-Significations in Transit from Old Worlds to Abraham Lincoln, Bayou Ballads, and William Attaway
The English language label “Blackamoor,” in conjunction with the eighteenth and nineteenth-century sculptures it signifies in the art collections of New York University’s magnificent Italian headquarters at Villa La Pietra, encode a visual and vernacular archive of trans-regional histories that wove the Mediterranean into one world with Afro-Asia and the Americas. My essay imagines the trans-oceanic transit of the “Blackamoor” as overlapping allegories in western culture, along tangled paths of time and space, of reinvention and revision, that supply bridges from Old Worlds to the New. It seeks to capture fragments of this ubiquitous, yet elusive figure’s reincarnation and retelling in word and art, as it migrated from the “Moorish” ta’ifas of Granada and Sicily, through Ottoman courts, the streets of Black London, and the workshops of Venetian artisans, to rest upon the shores of the United States, refracted as person/thing through plural prisms from different centuries. I reflect upon the Blackamoor’s re-significations through these American prisms: one, the musings of a Euro-American President on the plight of the enslaved at the height of a Civil War sparked by slaveholders; another, the lyrics of a plantation bayou ballad about the “Moor” as a metaphor for passing; and finally, a tale about a Black body in porcelain shedding tears of pearls, crafted by an African American literary artist of Chicago’s Black Renaissance.