By Sara Patterson
In defiance of traditional cultural history, Humanities scholar Christopher Taylor discovered that the people in the British West Indies considered themselves citizens of the British Empire. For his groundbreaking work, Taylor has received the prestigious 2019 American Studies Association Lora Romero First Book Publication Prize for the book Empire of Neglect: The West Indies in the Wake of British Liberalism (Duke University Press, 2018).
Empire of Neglect examines how Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations influenced 19th century liberal economic thinkers to believe that Britain could expand its wealth only by casting aside the formal empire. This loss of connection to Britain caused great anxiety across all divides of race and class in the British West Indies. Taylor examines this neglect’s cultural and literary ramifications, tracing how 19th century British West Indians reoriented their affective, cultural, and political worlds toward the Americas.
“Empire of Neglect’s vast and original archival research provides a history of the British West Indies that sets the promise of political liberalism and emancipation against the actual effects of economic liberalism and free market policies,” said Deborah L. Nelson, the Helen B. and Frank L. Sulzberger Professor and Chair in the Department of English Language and Literature. “Scholars of the Caribbean have called it ‘field-making’ for its transformative arguments and methodological innovation.”
Today from the protesters in Hong Kong wanting to maintain democratic rule to the people of Puerto Rico still suffering economic hardship from Hurricane Maria, the 19th century history in the British West Indies has political relevance. These events delve into the question: what obligations do nations have toward their former and current territories?
“I am interested in thinking about how this history of imperial abandonment is relevant now, and how it informs reparations to the West Indies,” Taylor said. “Now we can think about projections of what climate change will do to the West Indies and realize that it’s plausible the islands will become uninhabitable. That realization reframes what post-colonial sovereignty means in an era of climate catastrophe.”
Influenced by UChicago scholars, Taylor has embraced an interdisciplinary approach to scholarship and has gained the ability to write gracefully and in an animating way about economic thought. While Department of English Languages and Literatures colleague, Adrienne Brown, is a mentor, Taylor acquired the knowledge and the vocabulary to describe concepts such as empiricism, colonial equity, and co-belonging from books by UChicago scholars Thomas C. Holt’s The Problem of Freedom (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991) and Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism (Duke University Press, 2011).
“When I was writing my dissertation about the British West Indies in the 19th century, The Problem of Freedom became my literary companion,” Taylor said. “In my last year of graduate school (2011), Cruel Optimism was published. Lauren Berlant’s vocabulary helped me to formulate thoughts about people attached to a world that cannot support their desires and dreams anymore.”
Taylor’s fascination with British West Indies colonial and post-colonial literature began during a New York University study abroad program. Initially, Taylor expected to find authors repudiating colonialism and instead found authors not invested in independence. Focusing on where the anxiety originated, Taylor discovered a different story for the British West Indies, which continues to hold relevance for transnational issues today.
For the next scholarly project, Taylor is exploring voluntary slavery. For example during the 1850s, free blacks submitted petitions to be re-enslaved to people in the Southern states, so they could stay close to their family and friends. The new work rethinks aspects of freedom, citizenship, and belonging through slavery and emancipation.
The American Studies Association awards the Lora Romero First Book Prize annually to the best first book published in American studies that highlights intersectional dynamics in the study of race, gender, class, sexuality, and/or nation. The prize is a tribute to Lora Romero, a long-term active member of ASA and assistant professor at Stanford University who died in 1997 as her first book, Home Fronts: Nineteenth Century Domesticity and Its Critics (Duke University Press, 1997), appeared in print. Previous recipients include Sharon Luk for The Life of Paper: Letters and a Poetics of Living Beyond Captivity (University of California Press, 2017) in 2018; Nicole Fleetwood for Troubling Vision: Performance, Versatility, and Blackness (University of Chicago Press, 2011) for 2012; and Sharon Holland for Raising the Dead: Readings of Death and (Black) Subjectivity (Duke University Press, 2001) for 2002.