The Department of African American Studies presents a talk by visiting scholar


Heike Raphael-Hernandez

University of Maryland University College, Europe / University of Potsdam, Germany 


“Literate Agency: Black Caribbean Empowerment & 18th c. Moravian Church Mission Documents”


Discussant: Professor Ugo Nwokeji, Department of African American Studies


A letter written in 1739 to the Danish king, Christian VI., by enslaved Afro-Caribbean Moravians, in which they protest plantation owners’ continued harassment and mistreatment of their missionary work among fellow slaves… Interviews about their former daily lives back in Africa before their captivity… Letters of encouragement and greetings to fellow Native American Moravians in the continental U.S. with reports about their own daily struggles with plantation owners…    

Moravian archives include texts that were written by enslaved and free Afro-Caribbean Moravian members themselves. In addition to the above-mentioned texts, they include, for example, Lebensläufe that can be regarded as small autobiographies all members wrote during the course of their life and that were intended to be read at their funeral as last words and greetings to the congregation. One finds also letters to the communities in Bethlehem, PA and Herrnhut in Europe about daily church and missionary activities. These documents have to be read in very critical ways because these Caribbean Moravian missionary communities were themselves not free of their immediate surroundings’ attitudes and constrains. However, it is with the Moravian missionary community that their African members, enslaved and free, experienced a disruption of racial hierarchies. Because of the belief and practice of total equality and respect Moravian missionaries had for all their members, African members learned not only to read and write—even if the primary goal was to study holy scripture—but also to hold a variety of administrative and theological positions in their congregations.

A close reading of these documents allows one to claim that these texts testify to enslaved Africans’ ability of stealing one’s body out of slavery by performing expressive and literate acts of freedom. These acts can be read as acts of refusal to be dispossessed which consequently lead to an atmosphere that allowed an awakening of possibilities of identities of protests. 



Heike Raphael-Hernandez is Professor of English at the University of Maryland University College, European Division. Currently, she is also the Interim Professor for American Studies at the University of Potsdam, Germany. Her research interests include Diasporic Cultures in intercultural and interracial contexts. She is the editor of Blackening Europe: The African American Presence (Routledge 2004) and AfroAsian Encounters: Culture, History, Politics (co-edited with Shannon Steen, NYU Press 2006). She is author of Contemporary African American Women Writers and Ernst Bloch’s Principle of Hope (Edwin Mellen Press, 2008). She has just completed a manuscript examining film and the global South.