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Seeking Freedom in the Sahel: Frontiers of Liberation and Geographies of Belonging in an Atlantic-Saharan Crossroads

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This dissertation probes historical intersections between space, freedom, and political change in the West African Sahel, particularly the area of the Inland Delta of the Niger river, in today’s Mali. The semi-arid Sahel region forms the southern shore of the Sahara Desert, stretching from the Atlantic coast of West Africa to the Red Sea. The Sahel has long been characterized by its connectivity, fueled by its people’s short-and-long-range travels, as well as the expansive religious, commercial, and intellectual communities they formed. Because of these circulations and of its geographical location, the West African Sahel is a unique space where the production of race and Blackness, and political economies stemming from both the Atlantic and Saharan worlds, intersected. Sahelian networks through which people, words, and ideas circulated, spanned the lands tucked between the Senegal and Niger rivers, but also the expanse between the Caribbean and Red seas. Framing the West African Sahel as a nodal region in world history, the dissertation proposes an account of the coercive regimes that overlapped there, through the trajectories of three Sahelian Muslims who had to navigate them. Indeed, from the early nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, the West African Sahel underwent deep mutations stemming from the impact of three world-making political projects. These were the Atlantic political economy of capitalism and colonialism (sixteenth-twentieth centuries); Islamic revolutions and the rise of West African theocratic states (1804-1880s); and African decolonial struggles and political construction (1940s-1960s). The dissertation provides a layered and textured account of how Sahelian Muslims sought to emancipate from the systems of slavery, conquest, and colonialism that impacted them. It argues that they built freedom by relying on memory, intimacy, place-making, and the building of expansive cross-border communities. The dissertation is based upon research conducted in Mali, Senegal, France, Jamaica, Ireland and England.

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This item is under embargo until May 31, 2024.