Leslie Alexander


Dr. Leslie Alexander is Associate Professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies and the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. A specialist in early African American and African Diaspora history, she received her B.A. from Stanford University and her M.A. and Ph.D. from Cornell University. Dr. Alexander’s research focuses on late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Black culture, political consciousness, and resistance movements.

Her first monograph, entitled African or American?: Black Identity and Political Activism in New York City, 1784-1861, explores Black culture, identity, and political activism during the early national and antebellum eras. She is also the co-editor of “We Shall Independent Be:” African American Place-Making and the Struggle to Claim Space in the United States, the Encyclopedia of African American History, and is the author of the widely read op-ed piece, “The Birth of a Nation is an Epic Fail,” which appeared in The Nation. Dr. Alexander’s second monograph, “Fear of a Black Republic: African Americans, Haiti, and the Birth of Black Internationalism” is an exploration of African American foreign policy during the nineteenth century and it is forthcoming with the University of Illinois Press. Using Haiti as an illustrative example of early Black internationalism, this project examines how and why Haitian sovereignty inspired Black activists, why Black leaders in the United States fought relentlessly to protect and defend Haitian independence, and how they pressured the U.S. government to grant Haiti diplomatic recognition.

Her newest research project, “How We Got Here: Slavery and the Making of the Modern Police State,” examines how surveillance of free and enslaved Black communities in the colonial and antebellum eras laid the foundation for modern-day policing. A recipient of several prestigious fellowships, including the Ford Foundation Senior Fellowship, Dr. Alexander has given considerable service to the discipline. She is the Immediate Past President of the Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora (ASWAD), and is an Executive Council member of the National Council for Black Studies (NCBS). She also serves on the Advisory Councils for the Journal of African American History, The Black Scholar, and the International Journal for Africana Studies. During her career, she has won several significant awards including the coveted University Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching and the University Distinguished Diversity Enhancement Award at Ohio State University.

Research Focus

How We Got Here: Slavery and the Making of the Modern Police State

My project interrogates the theme of “Afterlives” by exploring the legacies of slavery in modern-day policing and mass incarceration. Despite growing public awareness that mass incarceration has its roots in slavery, and that racial bias infects all aspects of our criminal justice system, our nation has yet to reckon with the reality that our systems of policing and mass criminalization have powerful, significant histories that originated in white fear—not merely of Black people, or even Black resistance, but of the very notion of Black freedom. My research offers a corrective to this omission, examining how contemporary systems of policing, surveillance, and punitive control of Black communities are traceable to the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, when white people desperately sought to control a large unfree population who refused to submit to enslavement.

At the heart of slavery lay a terrifying conundrum—an epic struggle between the slaveholders who sought to extract labor, loyalty, and submission from their human property and the enslaved who longed for freedom and were willing to obtain their liberation by any means necessary. The desire for Black liberation and the inevitability of Black resistance haunted white people, driving them to extreme measures. Slavery was, Thomas Jefferson famously quipped, akin to holding a “wolf by the ears”—slaveholders could not release their grip on it, but they also knew that formidable Black rage boiled beneath the surface which could not be fully contained. Therefore, throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, white Americans lived in a constant state of terror, anxiously worrying when and where the next uprising would occur. To curb their fears, white authorities enacted laws to monitor and control Black people’s movements, interactions, and even their cultural activities. Creating a precedent for state policing and social control that would haunt future generations of Black people in America, state and federal governments implemented a complex web of legal codes, patrols, and militias that tracked and governed Black people’s lives in sickening detail, regulating their movement and ensuring that whites were empowered to use all means—legal and extralegal—to control Black lives. Ultimately, this project argues that if we ever hope to defeat and destroy the systems of social control that plague Black lives, we must have an honest reckoning with the omnipresent white fear that has created, sustained, and fortified them.