Annette Joseph-Gabriel (John West/Trinity Communications)
Annette Joseph-Gabriel, photographed with art by William Paul Thomas, from the series Cyanosis, on view at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in 2022. (John West/Trinity Communications)

NEH Fellowship Supports Research on Enslaved Childhoods

“Children know how to tell their stories,” Annette Joseph-Gabriel said.

It’s imperative that we listen.

Joseph-Gabriel, John Spencer Bassett Associate Professor of Romance Studies and associate professor of Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies at Duke, is letting the voices of long-dead children be her guide in her newest book, Enslaved Childhoods: Survival and Storytelling in the Atlantic World, under contract with Harvard University Press.

She received a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for the project, which examines the experiences of enslaved children in the Atlantic world during the 18th and 19th centuries. She has also been selected as a National Humanities Center Fellow for the 2024–25 academic year, an opportunity that will allow her to be among a cohort of scholars.

Joseph-Gabriel’s attention was drawn to the lives of enslaved children when she was a Digital Humanities Fellow at the American Philosophical Society Library in Philadelphia. She was working on a project to trace the movements of enslaved people throughout the Atlantic world, a subject that is more nuanced than many of us realize.

“We think about enslaved people being fixed in place, confined on a plantation,” she said, “but there was actually a lot of mobility. People ran away. People evoked other geographic spaces in stories and songs, they had family members in other places who they were sending money to when they could. They were paying attention to news about revolutions elsewhere. If we examine how people were moving, we can understand a little more about how they understood freedom.”

It was a colleague’s observation that most of the people whose movements she was tracing were young — children and adolescents — that piqued Joseph-Gabriel’s interest and steered her towards her current project. “I hadn't thought about age as a category of analysis before,” she said. “I knew how to talk about race or gender, but age was a lens for understanding people that was new to me.”

In Enslaved Childhoods: Survival and Storytelling in the Atlantic World, Joseph-Gabriel will trace the stories of six children between the ages of two and ten years old. One girl wrote 456 letters that are preserved in the New York Public Library, but others were able to leave much less.

“Two of the children were murdered on slave ships during the Middle Passage, but not before they left something of themselves,” she said. “They left an imprint, they left a sound, they left something that other children who witnessed their murders bore testimony to.

“How do you tell such a terrible story? My argument is that the children themselves know,” Joseph-Gabriel said. “I'm not taking the child's voice, but I'm paying attention to them and taking them seriously as guides, not just for what happened to them — the content of their stories — but for what they can also tell us about modes of narration.”

Joseph-Gabriel’s research confounds many of our ideas about childhood. “I was surprised at how attuned some of the children were to the politics of their world,” she said. “One of the children I'm writing about is a boy who was enslaved in Paris. He ran away from his enslaver, an American sailor who was preparing to leave France and go back to South Carolina. This boy really did not want to leave France, so he kept running away. When he was captured, he was put in prison and he decided to write a letter to Benjamin Franklin, who was in Paris at that time, asking for assistance. He was eight years old! How do you know how to do that at that age?”

Allowing the children’s authentic voices to be heard is shaping Joseph-Gabriel’s plans for the organization of the book. “I started out with a very academic structure: four giant chapters,” she said, “but I've been thinking a lot about what it means to tell a story like this. So, I’ve broken it into much smaller chapters that are arranged thematically — like how children thought about freedom — but with a larger thread that runs through. I want to tell a fast-paced story, one that the reader doesn't necessarily need to read in order or cover to cover, but where everyone can find a place.”

Joseph-Gabriel plans to use her fellowship from the NEH not just to write Enslaved Childhoods, but also to plan the next stages of her research. “I'm hoping to extend the digital project that was at the heart of this,” she said. “My goal is to expand the book project to include a companion website, where you can follow the travels and movements of enslaved children, both those who are featured in the book and others whose stories didn’t make it into the book. That's the future hope.”