Ideas from the Age of Enlightenment sparked the American and French revolutions, shining a spotlight on concepts such as reason, liberty and constitutional government. But it was, at the same time, an era of hardening racism when freed people of color were stripped of their remaining rights.

Binghamton University Assistant Professor of English, General Literature and Rhetoric Surya Parekh reimagines the Enlightenment from the position of the Black subject in his latest book, Black Enlightenment, which will be released in September by Duke University Press. In it, he focuses on 18th-century Black writers such as Francis Williams, Ignatius Sancho and Phillis Wheatley alongside their white European contemporaries.

“Over the last 30 years, there has been a real effort to rethink the Enlightenment and consider it globally, rather than just identifying it with familiar thinkers such as David Hume and Immanuel Kant,” said Parekh, also the co-editor of Living Translation and the forthcoming Spivak Moving.

Although the Enlightenment is generally thought of as a Western European movement, that’s not necessarily the case. Enlightenment ideas spread to Eastern Europe and Russia, for example, as well as British and French colonies, including those in North America, the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Haiti, of course, became the locus of a successful slave rebellion that established the modern nation. Jamaica also experienced multiple slave rebellions during the period, including Tacky’s Revolt in the 1760s. Escaped slaves, known as maroons, also formed separate communities throughout the Americas and the islands.

“Slavery doesn’t have a linear course. There are moments when it’s worse and moments where it’s less worse,” Parekh said. “The restrictions against Black people harden over the course of the 17th century.”

For example, free Black people were once able to vote in some of the American colonies, a right that was eventually eliminated, he noted.

An interesting case highlighting the era’s racial anxieties was that of Francis Williams, a Jamaican poet. Williams’ father, John, petitioned for and won his family’s freedom in the early 1700s, earning the right to own property and testify in court. Francis was educated in England and returned to an island as a schoolteacher, writing poems in Latin on the side.

Francis Williams and his literary eloquence are mentioned in a footnote that Hume added to an essay six years after its initial publication. The footnote is incredibly racist, comparing Williams — unnamed but identifiable — to a parrot repeating the words of white betters. Kant also quotes the footnote, as well as slavery proponents.

Only one of Williams’ Latin poems survives today, preserved by a racist Jamaican slaveholder in mockery. Hume later revised his footnote, showing that anxieties over race remained in his mind, Parekh said.

Poets and thinkers

Some Black Enlightenment thinkers earned recognition in their day but receded from view as the centuries passed.

Born into slavery on Long Island, Jupiter Hammon was the first Black American writer to be published in 1761, when he was nearly 50 years old. He became a Christian preacher and published poetry and prose with a religious bent, all while enslaved. At the age of 70, Hammon advocated for freedom for the younger enslaved people but not for himself. Why? There was no support for slaves who had been manumitted, Parekh pointed out. Hammon’s situation points to the difference between political and economic freedom.

That conundrum is exemplified by Phillis Wheatley, author of the 1773 book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Wheatley, who had been kidnapped from Africa and sold into slavery as a child, married after gaining her freedom. However, the American War of Independence prompted a tremendous recession and Wheatley’s husband went in and out of debtors’ prison. Wheatley died in poverty and poor health at the age of 31, even as her fame was spreading in Europe, Parekh said.

“She is our first major Black American poet to publish a book and only the second woman to have a frontispiece, an image of her at the front of the book,” Parekh said. “Lots of people read her in the late 1700s through the early 1800s, and then she fell out of favor for around 150 years.”

Interestingly, the first known Black female poet in North America came slightly before her: Lucy Terry Prince, the author of the 1746 ballad “Bars Fight,” which was preserved orally until it was published in 1855.

An Afro-British thinker, Ignatius Sancho may have been a slave, but scholars are unsure; a later biography is somewhat fanciful, claiming that he was the orphaned son of slaves and named by a Spanish bishop, for example. What we do know: He owned a grocery store in London after working in the household of the Duke of Montagu and is the only Black man known to have voted in the 18th century.

All that remains of his literary work is a series of letters published posthumously in 1782. Like Wheatley, he achieved a minor degree of fame in the 18th century before falling out of favor for around 200 years.

“He’s left behind a whole series of letters filled with wordplay, musings on domestic affairs, musings on what’s going on around him and literary reviews,” Parekh said. “He also wrote some pieces of music.”

Race and social anxieties

Circumstances did lead the races to mix in society outside of the bonds of slavery, although these relationships were often fraught with tension. During the Revolutionary War, for example, the British offered freedom to slaves who fought on their side; that freedom turned out to be in chilly Nova Scotia.

In 1783, some of these freedmen and women ended up in England, where they didn’t qualify for relief under the Poor Laws, resulting in a marginal existence. After a public outcry, some were resettled in a failing colony in Sierra Leone and died.

Even Enlightenment-era abolitionistssometimes held racist beliefs, such as wanting to return enslaved Black people to Africa due to fears of miscegenation. Some popular racist myths during the period were downright bizarre.

“For a while, there was a grotesque myth in London that if a white, pregnant woman saw a poor Black beggar, their baby would end up being born Black,” Parekh said.

The racial anxieties of the day led to other conundrums that seem odd to modern eyes. For example, during the Revolutionary War, an ad appeared in an American newspaper. The seller is a Tory, but the slave is a Whig and therefore should only be owned by a Whig, according to the ad.

“This person was being sold as a thing and, at the same time, there seemed to be, perhaps in mockery, recognition of his political preferences and desires,” Parekh observed. “This is one of the strange paradoxes that my book investigates.”