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Movement and Rootedness | The Nation

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Movement and Rootedness

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This returns us to the question of how American history should be realigned to incorporate the richness of black experience. Steven Hahn has serious doubts about the integrationist story. In recent years, Hahn has emerged as the pre-eminent historian of black politics in the apparently lost decades between the end of the Civil War and the stirrings of the modern civil rights movement. His book A Nation Under Our Feet, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2004, uncovered a vast history of black political involvement during the Jim Crow era. For a historian like Hahn, a focus on the supposedly inexorable logic of integration presents some obvious problems: if our benchmark for black experience is the degree to which African-Americans are accepted into the political fabric of the nation, the disenfranchisement of an entire race between Reconstruction and the 1960s constitutes a huge hole in black history.

The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations
By Ira Berlin
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The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom
By Steven Hahn
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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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In The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom, Hahn explains that the decades after Reconstruction were far from a political vacuum for Southern blacks. Instead, black people worked to wring as much as they could from the promises of the Reconstruction years, then regrouped after the Confederate counterrevolution in 1877 and continued to organize. In the process, they embraced a number of tactics and aspirations that don't fit well with the integrationist story. They formed paramilitary groups in response to the resurgence of racial violence and founded breakaway communities outside the boundaries of white control. Some gave serious consideration to leaving the United States altogether. Militarization, separatism and pan-Africanism were all successful strategies for countering the denial of black citizenship within the restored United States. Each was profoundly political, and none gave succor to the prospect of racial integration.

To make his case, Hahn offers a number of arguments that will seem polemical when set against the integrationist narrative. For example, he rejects outright the standard story about the abolition of slavery. Many histories of the early Republic insist that the shining ideals of the founders contributed to the speedy defeat of slavery in the North. Emancipation statutes were on the books in every state north of Delaware by 1804, they argue, and the growing conflict with the South reflected a fundamental disagreement between Northerners and Southerners over the morality of slavery. For Hahn, this is a heartening but unconvincing story. He points out that those Northern emancipation statutes were very limited in their reach: in most states, freedom was restricted to the children of slaves, and only those who had reached their 20s. As a result, Northern slavery lingered much longer than most Americans realize; to the eve of the Civil War, in some states.

Worse, there was a broad consensus among Northerners that their states should not become a refuge for fugitive slaves. This principle was enshrined in Article IV of the Constitution; a series of laws between 1793 and 1850 confirmed the right of Southerners to reimpose slavery on black people north of the Mason-Dixon line when they could prove that a person had fled his charge. (Since white testimony was clearly privileged over black in Northern courts, the standard of proof was low.) The 25 percent to 50 percent of Northern blacks who had been born in the South felt especially vulnerable to "recapture" even if their freedom had been legally granted, but Hahn suggests that virtually every black person in America knew the idea of a free North to be illusory. The entire United States was a slave regime, even if the integrationist version of American history would prefer it to have been otherwise.

Hahn acknowledges the political power of the integrationist narrative. In the 1960s and '70s, American historians were finally able to foreground the stories of slavery and racism, writing in the fire (or the afterglow) of the civil rights movement. In presenting the struggle for black citizenship as a keystone of American history, they naturally focused on emancipation and citizenship rather than black separatism or political autonomy. If instead we approach black history on its own terms rather than accepting integration as its unifying theme, a number of intriguing possibilities come into view. Hahn suggests that the black communities in the North before the Civil War were constituted and protected by blacks rather than by local or federal government: they were, in effect, communities of fugitives rather than citizens, in which blacks recognized that they could rely only on themselves to sustain freedom. Historians are familiar with this phenomenon in the Caribbean and South America: the so-called maroons were escaped slaves who founded communities in the shadow of the plantations of Jamaica, Brazil and elsewhere. They sustained their independence with martial courage and a fierce sense of self-determination. Hahn makes the provocative suggestion that blacks in the antebellum North might also be considered maroons. Rather than seeing them as beneficiaries of the promises of 1776, we should recognize that Northern blacks made and defended their own freedoms despite the national malaise of slavery.

Hahn does something similar with the Civil War. In recent decades, historians have become more aware of the important roles played by Northern and Southern blacks during the conflict. Perhaps half a million slaves crossed the lines into Union territory during the war, and around 150,000 of them (alongside many Northern blacks) enlisted in the Union army. Lincoln was ambivalent about abolition in 1861 and 1862, and his views on the necessity of widespread emancipation were strengthened by the droves of black people fleeing slavery and by the thousands of blacks who volunteered for military service. So why do most Americans still believe that Lincoln freed the slaves? Why are we inclined to see the slaves as passive recipients of freedom—again, as beneficiaries rather than as instigators—when their actions played a crucial role in shaping the Emancipation Proclamation? Why can't we recognize the Civil War as a giant slave rebellion?

Part of the answer lies in the political uses to which history and memory were put by blacks and whites alike after the Civil War. White people in the North and the South agreed to view the war as a family melodrama rather than an epic unraveling of racial injustice. White Southerners indulged the belief that their slaves had been loyal even to the end; white Northerners saw no reason to disabuse them of this. Even in progressive black circles, the idea of slaves as rebels and revolutionaries had considerable drawbacks. Many black leaders during the Jim Crow period and the civil rights era emphasized that blacks had been responsible and law-abiding during the dreadful years of slavery, establishing themselves as citizens-in-waiting rather than dangerous radicals. The logic of black revolution seemed to lead away from the integrationist goals of the NAACP and toward pan-Africanism, black power and other strident forms of self-determination. Not surprisingly, these alternative understandings of black history were cast aside.

At the heart of Hahn's critique is an attempt to recover African-Americans as political actors: to insist that, under slavery and "freedom," in the North and South, black politics was everywhere. This politics has been obscured in popular history, and even in academic circles, because it sits so poorly with two cherished myths about American history: that a commitment to freedom was a strand in the nation's political DNA, and that black people have patiently pursued integration since 1776. Hahn wants us to be bolder in exploring the hidden corners of black history, to set aside the integrationist narrative in search of the totality of black experience.

Ira Berlin's suggestion that the history of migration should be expanded to include African-Americans certainly brings the black past into alignment with one of the "master narratives" of American history, though not without cost. While Hahn counsels renewed attention to pan-Africanism and the recurrent interest of black people in emigration schemes, Berlin says virtually nothing about Marcus Garvey and the other black proponents of migration beyond the boundaries of the United States. Berlin's book will be more palatable to liberal readers who imagine black history as a journey toward meaningful American citizenship. By expanding the definition of this journey to include recent black arrivals with no ancestral connection to the US slave trade, Berlin opens up the traditional liberal story: black history emerges as more international and fluid in his telling, and his focus on how people adapted to the rhythms of movement and rootedness allows him to account for black agency in a way that would gratify Hahn. Berlin's black migrants are not simply carried on a tide beyond their control, even during the years of slavery. But this story complements the liberal narrative and seems considerably less radical than Hahn's proposal. Berlin sets out to broaden the conventional frame of black history—which places the transition from slavery to freedom at the heart of everything—but integration and a hard-won Americanness still figure prominently in his account.

It's tempting to heed Hahn's sweeping call for a new paradigm of black history, and to take up the many questions that would follow the uncoupling of African-American experience from the integrationist story. We might also consider why so many white people in the North eventually recognized the necessity of abolition without accepting the logic of racial equality. The emergence of scientific racism is only part of this story. Many stalwarts of the antislavery struggle—including Abraham Lincoln and Harriet Beecher Stowe—passionately believed that blacks were entitled to the promises of the Declaration of Independence, even as they suggested that the long-term future of African-Americans lay in colonies or nations beyond the borders of the United States.

The major obstacle to realizing Hahn's ambitious agenda is political rather than intellectual. Many of the operating assumptions of American history rest on the foundation of the integrationist story. To question it requires a fundamental reassessment of the most sanctified episodes in the American past, like the founding and the Civil War, and a willingness to acknowledge that neither freedom nor inclusion was an inevitability of American life. A more radical approach might also complicate the efforts of those black politicians and leaders who have deployed the integrationist story for progressive ends: leaders who, like Frederick Douglass and Barack Obama, determined that the benefits of embedding black experience in the unfolding story of American freedom offer more tangible rewards than a full accounting of America's past. From popular histories to the rhetoric of candidates and leaders, a revolution in our understanding of black history may be some time in coming. After all, in what seems more like a campaign pledge than an irony, the first black president has already urged us not to "lose sight of what we have in common."

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