Working the Diaspora

The Impact of African Labor on the Anglo-American World, 1650-1850

252 pages

August, 2012

ISBN: 9780814763698



Also available in



Part of the Culture, Labor, History series


Frederick C. Knight is Chair of the Department of History at Morehouse College.

All books by Frederick C. Knight

From the sixteenth to early-nineteenth century, four times more Africans than Europeans crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. While this forced migration stripped slaves of their liberty, it failed to destroy many of their cultural practices, which came with Africans to the New World. In Working the Diaspora, Frederick Knight examines work cultures on both sides of the Atlantic, from West and West Central Africa to British North America and the Caribbean.

Knight demonstrates that the knowledge that Africans carried across the Atlantic shaped Anglo-American agricultural development and made particularly important contributions to cotton, indigo, tobacco, and staple food cultivation. The book also compellingly argues that the work experience of slaves shaped their views of the natural world. Broad in scope, clearly written, and at the center of current scholarly debates, Working the Diaspora challenges readers to alter their conceptual frameworks about Africans by looking at them as workers who, through the course of the Atlantic slave trade and plantation labor, shaped the development of the Americas in significant ways.


  • “A brave and wide-ranging work that synthesizes the increasing knowledge about African and American links and expands that knowledge considerably in new and convincing ways.”

    —Peter H. Wood, Duke University

  • “Historians of African Americans have known for a long time that they were brought to the Americas to labor, but until Frederick Knight’s comprehensive and fascinating account, that labor had never been fully examined. By looking at African labor and especially agricultural skills, Knight shows that a great deal of the work that African Americans did as slaves had its roots in African agricultural processes. Knight’s chapter on the production of indigo is particularly telling on this point, and shows that Africans’ skill was perhaps as important as their muscle in furthering the New World’s agricultural development. While others have explored elements of the role of Africans as skilled farmers before, Knight has brought all this and more together in a compelling and convincing re-evaluation of Africans and their descendants’ role in American life.”

    —John K. Thornton, author of Africa and Africans in the Formation of the Atlantic World, 1400-1680

  • "This volume is a significant contribution to a number of different fields, and it is on the cutting edge of Atlantic history, exploring an almost seamless integration of African, African American, and indeed American life."

    —Simon P. Newman, American Historical Review

  • "Goes a long way toward giving enslaved African labor deserved recognition for having shaped the Atlantic world."

    Journal of World History

  • "In breaking new interpretive ground, Knight's work deserves serious consideration by Atlantic World specialists. Its interdisciplinarity, transnationality, and keen interpretative edge should be models for future works on the African Diaspora in the Americas. Working the Diaspora will certainly be an important work for years to come."

    Journal of African American History

  • “The book’s major scholarly contributions include a diaspora approach linking both sides of the Atlantic, an emphasis on the mental and human dimensions of slave workers, and evidence for multiple contributions of slave workers in making the American plantation.”


  • "Working the Diaspora is one of few books about American slavery to take Africa seriously...Knight deserves high praise for telling the story."

    —Walter Hawthorne, New West Indian Guide

  • Working the Diaspora is a welcome contribution to the study of labor and culture under slavery. Spanning the colonial through the antebellum period, Knight argues that Africans brought much more than brute strength to their work in sugar, rice, tobacco and indigo fields. By carefully contextualizing his study of labor practices in the Americas in the African past, Knight offers a compelling argument for the crucial role of African knowledge in the building of staple crop agriculture in the Americas. In a study that is archivally deep and analytically rich, Knight significantly expands our understanding of the role of African expertise in the creation of the black Atlantic.”

    —Jennifer L. Morgan, author of Laboring Women: Gender and Reproduction in New World Slavery