African-American history, broadly defined, continues to be the most innovative and exciting field in American historical studies. The great upheaval of the nineteenth century, which saw millions of slaves becoming free as the result of a cataclysmic civil war and then struggling for decades to maintain and enhance that status against fierce white-supremacist opposition, has attracted the interest of many talented historians. Once thought to have been handed their freedom by benevolent whites, especially Abraham Lincoln, African-Americans are now generally viewed as the primary agents of their own emancipation. Had blacks not deserted the plantations and offered themselves en masse to the Union forces, it is quite conceivable that the Civil War would have ended with slavery still in place or, at best, in the process of very gradual elimination.
Steven Hahn’s A Nation Under Our Feet is the most comprehensive account yet of black politics in the rural South before, during and after the Civil War. Whereas most previous work has focused either on the slave experience or on post-Emancipation struggles, Hahn’s book encompasses both and shows the continuities between how blacks fought for self-determination in the two periods. To do this, of course, he must take an expansive view of politics, since slaves had no formal legal or political rights to speak of and were forbidden to organize themselves politically. For Hahn, all efforts by slaves to secure better living conditions and some communal autonomy–whatever the means–qualify as political action. Manifestations of the slaves’ will to resist include wresting from the master the right to live in self-selected family units, have a garden plot, own and bequeath personal property, engage in petty trade and worship God in their own way.
Following the lead of earlier social historians, especially the late Herbert Gutman, Hahn finds that the strength and vitality of the slave community was derived primarily from a powerful sense of kinship or extended family that often went beyond actual blood ties. If American culture in general was highly individualistic, the black culture emerging from the slave experience was deeply rooted in closely knit families and interdependent, face-to-face communities. Hahn focuses on rural areas rather than cities, because it was there that a grassroots political ethos, based on what might be described as a kind of peasant communalism, came to full flower in the post-Emancipation era.
This is a difficult book to summarize, because it is so richly detailed and anecdotal. It draws directly on the recorded personal experiences of hundreds of rural African-Americans between the era of slavery and the Great Migration to the North in the early twentieth century. Based on prodigious research in primary sources, A Nation Under Our Feet is one of the most important works in American social history to appear in recent years. The emphasis throughout is on how the kinship networks and folk culture of ordinary rural blacks helped them to resist the determined efforts of white supremacists to nullify the rights of citizenship supposedly sanctioned by the postwar constitutional amendments and to subject blacks to new forms of economic exploitation.
After making a decisive contribution to the salvation of the Union and to their own emancipation through their service on the Northern side in the Civil War, rural Southern blacks fully expected to be rewarded with access to the land they had worked for so long without pay. Hahn provides a graphic account of the “Christmas Insurrection Scare of 1865”–a time when many blacks believed that the government was about to redistribute the land and many whites feared that the former slaves were going to rise up and seize it by force. A practical consequence was that most blacks delayed signing agricultural labor contracts for 1866 and thereby got better terms than if they had not held off in the hope of obtaining land of their own. More important, Hahn maintains, the disordered state of the Southern countryside at the end of 1865, especially the widespread violence perpetrated on blacks because of their refusal to conform to the demands and expectations of white landowners, was a condition for the coming of Radical Reconstruction. If rural blacks had docilely accepted the quasi slavery that their former masters tried to impose on them, Northern Congressional Radicals would have been less inclined to challenge President Andrew Johnson’s lenient Reconstruction policy and eventually seize control of the process. Hahn’s point is hard to deny, although his relentlessly rural focus has its limitations. It prevents him from giving due weight to the possibly decisive effect on Northern public opinion of the bloody urban riots in New Orleans and Memphis in the spring and summer of 1866, which mostly involved white attacks on defenseless blacks.