Movement and Rootedness | The Nation


Movement and Rootedness

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In the bright surge of liberal commentary that accompanied Barack Obama's electoral triumph, a sense of historical redemption was palpable. As Obama told the huge crowd that gathered on election night in Chicago, "The dream of our founders is alive in our time." If anything, Obama seemed happier to connect his candidacy with George Washington than to present himself as the heir of Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr. From his celebrated speech on race in Philadelphia to his inaugural address, Obama embedded black history in the broader American story. The founders had produced a Constitution filled with noble promises; it was "signed but ultimately unfinished" and relied on the efforts of generations of Americans—white and black, men and women—to extend the franchise, extinguish slavery and conquer prejudice.

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About the Author

Nicholas Guyatt
Nicholas Guyatt, a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, teaches American history at the University of York in...

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Obama's deft deployment of these arguments played an important role in his victory. During the spring of 2008, when critics were looking to corner him as a racial firebrand, Obama used what we might call the integrationist version of American history to sidestep the controversy. But he was hardly straying from academic orthodoxy. Like Obama, liberal historians have long viewed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as watershed documents that established freedom and equality as the guiding lights of American history. These high ideals, the argument goes, first hastened the demise of slavery in the Northern states, then created such unbearable pressure in the "house divided against itself" (in Lincoln's memorable phrase) that a terrible Civil War became unavoidable. During the 1860s a second American Revolution secured political and legal equality for the 4 million people who had been enslaved. But then the racism of Southern whites (and the apathy of the North) curtailed the march of freedom. Still, the pressure of American ideals inspired the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century. With Obama's victory the final barrier to black achievement fell, and the integration of black people into the mainstream was complete.

The appeal of the integrationist story is obvious. It presents the founders as visionaries whose legacy eclipsed their mistakes and the prejudices of their day. We may lament their failure to rivet abolitionism to the Constitution, but their love of equality ensured that America's institutions had a kind of egalitarian inevitability about them. (As Obama put it in his Philadelphia speech, "The answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution.") The integrationist story also sets American history on an upward track: it suggests that the nation started out with great ideals, then strived to expand their reach and meaning. It is a story of reconciliation, not opposition or confrontation. For more than two centuries, Americans have looked to "narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time"—Obama again.

But is this the only way of looking at black history? Or the best way? During the 2008 campaign, Obama famously denounced his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, when the press began replaying snippets of sermons in which Wright offered an unsparing interpretation of American history. The media found it hard to get past the bracing refrain of "God damn America!" in a sermon Wright delivered just after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But Wright's confrontational oratory was hardly grounded in racial or political nihilism; he drew upon a rich black tradition of holding the United States to account. For Wright, the integrationist version of American history had whitewashed the past. In fact, the American story had been punctuated by injustice and blindness toward nonwhite peoples, from the seventeenth-century Atlantic Seaboard to the twenty-first-century Middle East. The problem, Wright held, was not some innate evil on the part of Americans but the tendency of Americans throughout history to confuse the actions of their government with the will of God: "We believe God ordained African slavery. We believe God approved segregation.... We believe God was a founding member of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund." Black history was important precisely because it provided a vantage point on this flattering but delusional sense of America as a redeemer nation, a city upon a hill.

The uproar over Wright's remarks was a familiar quandary for black orators. In the nineteenth century, Frederick Douglass weighed whether to excoriate the United States for its failings or to present black rights as the fulfillment of the founders' dream. The political power of memory was formidable. Although Douglass knew that Abraham Lincoln had struggled to embrace a vision of black citizenship and racial integration, after 1865 he frequently lionized Lincoln as a champion of black rights. Martin Luther King Jr. faced the same dilemma in the 1950s and '60s. Initially he presented civil rights as a triumph of deep-rooted American ideals; toward the end of his life, however, he lamented the "prophesying of smooth patriotism" and, in the face of poverty at home and imperialism abroad, insisted on "a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history."

In the back and forth with reporters following his castigation of Wright, Obama let slip what was at stake for the presidential candidate in these debates about the black past. "When you start focusing so much on the plight of the historically oppressed," he argued, then "you lose sight of what we have in common; that it overrides everything else." This was, of course, precisely the point: an oppositional version of black history could shake up the complacent patriotism that underpinned the integrationist story. But by making these sharper arguments, black orators risked ostracism and the accusation that they were themselves racist. Even if Obama had recognized some truth in Wright's jeremiad, to acknowledge as much would have been political suicide.

In The Making of African America, distinguished historian Ira Berlin challenges the integrationist story. Berlin, who has written widely about the realities of the slave experience, stumbled on the subject of his latest book as he wrapped up a radio interview in Washington, DC. Berlin had been asked about emancipation and agency: did Lincoln free the slaves with a stroke of his pen, or did the slaves effectively free themselves by fleeing the plantations and fighting in the Union army? After the interview, Berlin chatted with some of the black employees of the station and was struck by the fact that they had all been born outside the United States. As immigrants, they were curious about the Civil War and other controversies in the black past but convinced that these "had nothing to do with them. Simply put, it was not their history."

In the period between the abolition of the foreign slave trade in 1808 and the overhaul of American immigration laws in the 1960s, the number of black immigrants to the United States was extremely small. While America was remade by successive waves of immigration—German, Irish, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Jewish—only a trickle of blacks entered the nation. By 1965, when the Voting Rights Act placed the capstone on the struggle for equality, blacks could boast deeper American roots than almost every other racial or ethnic group: nearly all were descended from families that had been living in North America since the seventeenth or eighteenth century.

That same year, the Johnson administration promoted another initiative—the Immigration and Nationality Act—which would profoundly affect the composition and experience of America's black population. In the next decades, black immigrants came to America en masse for the first time in more than a century and a half. From Britain, Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere, a rising tide of black people sought economic opportunity or asylum from political chaos and environmental disaster. In the 1990s alone, nearly a million people entered the United States from the Caribbean; Berlin puts the total number of black immigrants since 1965 at "several million." By the turn of the twenty-first century, around one in ten black Americans was either an immigrant or the child of immigrants.

Which version of American history should these new arrivals embrace? Do they align themselves with earlier generations of (nonblack) immigrants who overcame prejudice and penury with determination and hard work? Or do they see themselves as heirs to those black Americans who endured the crushing regimes of slavery and racism? These questions have a cultural edge, touching on the ways people define themselves and remember the past. They are also deeply political. Berlin wrote his book as Obama made a spectacular ascent to the White House, and he watched with interest as Debra Dickerson, Stanley Crouch and other African-American writers and pundits publicly aired their suspicions that Obama wasn't really "black." Dickerson, in an infamous article that appeared in Salon in 2007, suggested that only the descendants of African slaves could truly merit the identification. Obama, whose Kenyan father spent six years as a student in the United States, was poised to reap "the benefits of black progress...without having borne any of the burden."

At the time, Dickerson and Crouch took a lot of heat for their comments. A motley alliance of gloating conservatives and piqued liberals rejected as "racism" any attempt to exclude Obama from the black American experience, even though both commentators had suggested that an Obama presidency could benefit African-Americans. (Crouch welcomed the arrival of "our first black president" even if it was through a racial "side door"; Dickerson conceded that "Obama, with his non-black ass, is doing us all a favor.") Berlin notes that prejudices and tensions between black immigrant communities and the American-born black population have been bubbling for decades. In the crudest iterations, immigrants have viewed African-Americans as lazy, entitled and hopelessly hung up on a distant memory of oppression, while African-Americans have seen black immigrants as arrogant usurpers with no respect for history, willing to "act white" if doing so will hasten their assimilation.

Has the recent wave of black immigration resulted in a crisis of black identity, or does it provide an opportunity to reimagine black history and experience? One way to resolve the tensions would be simply to exclude immigrants from that identity, as Dickerson implied by denying the blackness of Obama. But Berlin thinks he has a better idea: he wants to remind us that African-American history has also been shaped by the experience of migration, and that the descendants of American slaves may have more in common with new immigrants than they realize.

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