Book about 19th-century African healer wins Frederick Douglass Book Prize

James Sweet, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, has won the 2012 Frederick Douglass Book Prize for his book, “Domingos Álvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World” (University of North Carolina Press).

The Douglass Prize was jointly created by Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. The award is named for Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), the slave who escaped bondage to emerge as one of the great American abolitionists, reformers, writers, and orators of the 19th century. It is awarded annually for the best book written in English on slavery or abolition. The $25,000 prize will be presented to Sweet at a reception sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Institute in New York City in February 2013.

“James Sweet’s thoughtful and moving book about African healer Domingos Álvares provides much more than a biographical portrait of a remarkable 18th-century man,” noted Newman, the 2012 Douglass Prize jury chair and professor of history at Rochester Institute of Technology.

“Rather,” he added, “Sweet’s imaginative reconstruction of Álvares’ life in and out of bondage places African worldviews at the center of Atlantic history. In the tradition of Carlo Ginzburg’s ‘The Cheese and the Worms,’ he illuminates the very ethos animating Álvares’ struggles in Benin, Brazil, and Portugal. In Sweet’s powerful rendering, Álvares’ constant emphasis on healing, divination, communal belonging, and cultural resistance prefigured more familiar anti-colonialist and abolitionist struggles. ‘Domingos Álvares’ also makes a compelling case for redefining the intellectual history of Atlantic society from Africans’ perspectives.”

In addition to Sweet, the other finalists for the prize were Robin Blackburn for “The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights” (Verso Books); R. Blakeslee Gilpin for “John Brown Still Lives!: America's Long Reckoning with Violence, Equality, and Change” (University of North Carolina Press); and Carla L. Peterson for “Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York Cit”y (Yale University Press).

This year’s finalists were selected from a field of more than one hundred entries by a jury of scholars that included Shawn Alexander (University of Kansas), Linda Heywood (Boston University), and Richard Newman (Rochester Institute of Technology). The winners were selected by a review committee of representatives from the Gilder Lehrman Center, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and Yale University.