Mitchell Lecture, October 27, 2010: The Origins of African-American Interests in International Law

24 Pages Posted: 21 Oct 2011 Last revised: 2 Feb 2012

See all articles by Henry J. Richardson

Henry J. Richardson

Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law

Date Written: October 27, 2010


In exploring contemporary lessons to be drawn from the evolution of African American interests in international law, what can History teach contemporary policy makers and local people? Working through international legal history, African American history, and international law through the New Haven School, the historical voices of African Americans are clarified to identify what these subordinated people demanded of international law for their own freedom. Those voices demanded good governance in freedom, and made claims to some better outside law giving them the right to freedom that they knew they had, as against the local law of the territory which defined their enslavement. Beginning with the slave trade - and slave resistance as its inherent synonym - from Africa into the Atlantic Basin, slavery in North America was a corner of the international slave system, and Black claims to outside law against it are explored. Claims to better outside law in speech, agency, and action were defined by Black men and women over the generations by their normative opposition to slavery and racial oppression. They comprise the foundation of Black interests in international law, where the latter offered potential for, but was not a constant source of better outside law. Thus race and the rights of African-heritage people who became African Americans have always been international questions, and these men and women historically participated in and affected international politics as part of their survival struggles. This history becomes even more clear through the actions and voices of African Americans in the American Revolution, implicitly the Constitutional Convention, the forced westward slave migration into Mississippi territory, slave revolts and other consequences of the Haitian Revolution, and the War of 1812.

Subordinated peoples can have a jurisprudence on which they act without a dominating people's or group's permission. Contemporary lessons from the history of African American interests in international law can be drawn relative to two policy categories: first, lessons for African Americans on the need to more completely recognize and organize to act on their international law interests based on contemporary examples and successes; and second, lessons for expanding the understanding of the US treaty-making process from the existence and inclusiveness of such African American interests. The final lesson from such African American interests goes to their implications for the contemporary governance of America as a pluralistic nation. That governance and its scholarship must now incorporate the trend that African Americans and every minority and coherent disadvantaged group in the American process has, or will define, their own interests in international law in a globalized world, in large part for rights-protective reasons within the United States. The implications of this trend are discussed, and the resulting challenge to the American academy is framed, with general optimism.

Keywords: international law, African American History, American pluralism, constitutional law and foreign affairs, race and international law, Atlantic basin studies, slave studies, black international tradition, incorporation of international law with domestic law, domestic rights and international affairs

JEL Classification: K19, K30, K33, K39, K40

Suggested Citation

Richardson, Henry J., Mitchell Lecture, October 27, 2010: The Origins of African-American Interests in International Law (October 27, 2010). Buffalo Human Rights Law Review, Vol. 17, No. 1, 2011, Temple University Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2012-04, Available at SSRN:

Henry J. Richardson (Contact Author)

Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law ( email )

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