Movement and Rootedness

Movement and Rootedness

Ira Berlin and Steven Hahn want to counter the ways that the integrationist story of the American past casts aside alternative understandings of black history.


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.

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.

In The Making of African America, Berlin proposes realigning black history around four distinct episodes of population transfer. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some 400,000 Africans were transported to what is now the United States in the appalling confines of the slave ship. The middle passage threw together black people who spoke different languages and had few common ties or experiences, and cast them into the increasingly vicious slave economies of British America. But in Berlin’s telling, this was only the first—and, in fact, the smallest—of a series of mass population movements that defined the African-American experience. After Congress banned the foreign slave trade in 1808, prohibiting the importation of slaves from Africa and the Caribbean, a vast internal trade funneled black people from the upper South toward the booming cotton fields of the Southern interior. Between 1800 and 1860 around a million men and women were transported from the Atlantic states to the "black belt" stretching from Georgia to Texas. Although these slaves remained within the boundaries of the United States, they were wrenched from the familiarity and certainties of their homes in the East as their ancestors had been from Africa decades earlier.

Alongside these sweeping forced transfers of enslaved people, Berlin chronicles two further "great migrations": the movement of black people from the rural South to the urban North in the middle decades of the twentieth century, and the arrival of those millions of black immigrants after 1965. His third episode is the largest of all the examples. Between 1900 and 1970 around 6 million blacks moved from the South to the North, overwhelmingly from rural areas to big cities like New York, Chicago and Detroit. Unlike its predecessors, this was a voluntary migration. Blacks may have felt the push of Jim Crow and the iniquities of the sharecropping system in the South, but they also recognized new economic opportunities in the North and moved quickly to seize them. These opportunities depended, ironically, on war and xenophobia: the American entry into World War I stemmed the flow of white immigrants from Europe, while conscription emptied factory floors and created an urgent need for labor. After the war, the clamor for restrictive immigration legislation choked off the torrent of foreign arrivals. Again, it was Southern blacks who stood ready to benefit. World War II presents a similar story. In the year after Pearl Harbor, the number of blacks employed in manufacturing spiked from 500,000 to 1.2 million. The war allowed African-American workers to benefit in various degrees from the long industrial boom of the postwar decades, even as whites deserted the inner cities and hastened the process of residential segregation.

A focus on mobility allows Berlin to present black history as a contrapuntal narrative of "movement" and "place": he is fascinated by the ways black people, during and after slavery, nurtured a deep sense of rootedness even as circumstances compelled them to remake their world on repeated occasions. This dynamic of movement and place is evident in black musical forms, to which Berlin pays close attention; but he wonders if this way of viewing black history will allow us to marry the "traditional" black story with the experience of recent black immigrants and with American history more generally. "The history of the United States rests upon movement," Berlin argues, "and then the embrace of place."

Blacks haven’t featured in the traditional celebration of immigrant success in America, perhaps because the middle passage seems fundamentally at odds with the happy myth of a nation of self-made outsiders. But Berlin’s desire to broaden the focus of black migration, and to consider the voluntary movements of the twentieth century alongside the upheavals of slavery, suggests some common ground. He wonders if the "rhythm of movement and rootedness" could offer "a powerful reminder of what Americans share."

There’s something tantalizing about this approach, which promises to internationalize and diversify the traditional version of the black past while linking it to a familiar American refrain. But it doesn’t quite come off. Some readers will find it hard to accept Berlin’s bold juxtaposition of forced and unforced migrations, and will insist that the experience of being bought and sold during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries cannot be grouped with the voluntary journeys of the twentieth century. Berlin is alive to this objection, and he sensitively concedes that slavery was sui generis even as he urges us to imagine a common theme for black history.

The theme of migration throws up other difficulties. Since the late eighteenth century, when many of the founders proposed that black people should be relocated to Africa as a condition of their emancipation, there has been a considerable suspicion among black Americans about the racist uses to which migration and population transfer might be put. Oddly, Berlin has little to say about the colonization mania among white people in the North and the upper South during the antebellum period: during the six decades before the Civil War, most white people came to believe that the deportation of blacks was a prerequisite for abolition.

Then there’s the problem of linking nonblack immigration with these black population movements. Berlin concedes that the age-old story of (white) immigrant success aligns poorly with the unspeakable journeys of the middle passage and the crowded flatboats and steamships that brought slaves to the Southern interior from the Atlantic states after 1800. (His suggestion that many white immigrants were, like black slaves, victims of international capitalism doesn’t quite convince.) He also acknowledges, at various points, that the struggle of blacks and immigrants for economic and social progress was a zero-sum game. In the decades before the Civil War, white immigrants embraced a virulent antiblack racism as a badge of belonging. After World War I the opportunity for blacks to move north and establish a strong presence in the cities was supplied by the ugly xenophobia among white politicians that closed down further immigration from Europe and Asia. Perhaps historians can sketch common experiences here and suggest that blacks and nonwhite immigrants ought to recognize what they shared. But the history of competition and tension between blacks and other migrants complicates the effort to present their struggles in a single frame.

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.

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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