The Chronicle Review

On History: A Rebellious Take on African-American History

Gordon Parks, Getty Images

A follower of Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, waits outside a UNIA club in New York in 1943.
August 03, 2009

As most scholars know, one book leads to another. Questions unanswered beg for more work. When I was finishing A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South From Slavery to the Great Migration (Harvard University Press, 2003), I became increasingly interested in Marcus Garvey's organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, as the capstone to the story I was telling. I discovered with astonishment, however, that the secondary literature on the group (especially about those at the grass-roots level) was almost nonexistent. The UNIA, after all, is acknowledged to be the largest political movement of people of African descent in the 20th century: one that commenced in the 1910s, grew spectacularly in the United States during the 1920s (even though Garvey was a Jamaican immigrant), and became international in its dimensions, with substantial followings in Central America, the Caribbean basin, and southern Africa. Yet, aside from many volumes on Garvey himself, there was little or nothing on its political geography, social basis, local history, or legacies.

Wondering how to make sense of such a large scholarly elision, I began to reflect on a more general and unusual problem: what historians don't write about—and why.

Why are there historical subjects we so easily avoid or disown, even when they are of genuine significance? Why are there interpretations we are reluctant to embrace, even when the empirical evidence nearly bites us in the face? And why do some frameworks of analysis become so deeply entrenched that even when accumulating scholarship calls them into question, they resist being displaced and instead assimilate new findings into more familiar categories?

Those questions rest at the heart of my latest book, The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom, which pursues them through three episodes that span more than a century and a half of American history and range in subject matter from the emancipation process in the 18th and 19th centuries to the genealogies of black power in the 20th. It is, in effect, a book about politics, and chiefly African-American politics, in a double sense: about the political worlds of both history making and history writing. And it calls for three major reassessments.

One concerns the way we have come to think about the abolition of slavery in the United States. Ever since the antebellum period itself (and particularly since the Union side won the Civil War), historians and other observers have identified two discrete emancipations: one, relatively small in scale, that ended slavery in what we call the "North" by the early 19th century; and another, far larger in scale, that ended slavery in what we call the "South" during the Civil War. The "first" emancipation thereby created a "free-labor North" and a "slave-labor South" and a political framework of "sectionalism" that governed American politics between 1800 and 1860, setting the stage for secession, military confrontation, and the emancipation with which we are most familiar.

That is all well and good, but research over the past two decades has called such a framework into serious question. It has demonstrated both the importance of slavery all over North America during the 18th century and the extremely gradual course of abolishing it in the Northeast, Middle Atlantic, and even Midwest, leaving slaves there throughout the antebellum era (in New Jersey as late as 1860) and, owing to the Fugitive Slave Acts, making slavery a national rather than a sectional institution.

Emancipation, I suggest, should therefore be viewed not as two discrete events but as a single protracted process (more protracted than anywhere else in the Atlantic world), associated most closely with state formation—the rise, developing capacity, claims to authority, and consolidation of a nation-state—rather than with an "irrepressible" conflict between free and slave societies.

Further, many settlements of African-Americans in the North may then be seen as resembling maroons (communities of fugitive slaves found in various locations throughout the hemisphere) and part of a developing political culture of slaves, shaped by people of African descent, North and South, who became involved in migration and communication. Think, for example, of figures like the abolitionists David Walker, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and Martin Delany who most famously elaborated such circuits in their movements, speeches, writing, and organizing. Sectionalism may therefore be regarded not as a fact or framework but as an enormously important political construction of the time, central to the mobilization of both anti-slavery and pro-slavery sentiment.

A second reassessment concerns how we might interpret, in political terms, what slaves did during the Civil War. It would be difficult to identify a reputable historian these days who does not think that slaves played an important role in ending slavery and defeating the Confederacy. But it would be almost impossible to identify a historian who is ready to argue that slaves engaged in rebellion. Indeed, most scholars make special efforts to refuse such an interpretation.

Why? Slaveholders and Confederate officials of the time had little doubt that the slaves' vast flight from plantations and farms and subsequent arming as Union soldiers constituted a rebellion; their correspondence and diaries crackled with the language of slave rebelliousness, referring to "insurrections," "mutinies," "stampedes," "turnouts," "strikes," and "revolts." Even more to the point, the Confederacy designated black Union soldiers as slaves in rebellion and expected to treat them accordingly if they were captured.

Most historical accounts begin with the outbreak of the Civil War itself and thereby fail to illuminate the connections between how slaves thought and acted during the war and how they thought and acted before the war. In exploring those connections and comparing what happened in the South and what happened on the island of Saint-Domingue between 1791 and 1804 (in what is known as the Haitian Revolution and currently understood as the greatest and only successful slave revolt in modern history), I believe a case may be made for a much larger and perhaps even more successful slave rebellion in the United States, since the slave population of the United States was 10 times the size of that in Saint-Domingue, and, once liberated, African-Americans won unprecedented civil and political rights.

I also suggest that the resistance to such an interpretive move reflects both a shared investment among writers and historians—then and now, Southern and Northern, black and white—in denying slave rebellion and a deep reluctance to imagine slaves as political actors in their own right.

That returns us to the problem I opened with: Why the Garvey movement has remained largely hidden from us and what a serious investigation of it might reveal. A third and final reassessment of history making and history writing thereby begins with a geographical and social profile of the movement based on material in the published Garvey papers (edited by Robert A. Hill) and in the Negro World, the UNIA newspaper. Historians have widely assumed (based on relatively little evidence) that the UNIA was a movement of the urban North, chiefly attracting recent migrants from the West Indies together with impoverished African-Americans who suffered from a variety of dislocations. But I discovered that most of the association's divisions were in the Southern states, not in the North, and in small towns and rural areas rather than in large cities; that UNIA supporters, whether in the North, South, or West, were overwhelmingly Southern born (and not from the Caribbean); and that they were working people who were literate, had skills, were married, were living in families, and were generally in their 30s and 40s. In short, laboring folks who sought or had achieved some measure of stability and respectability.

Such African-Americans were drawn to Garveyism in great numbers because Garvey spoke a language with familiar ideas and cadences, and because the UNIA tapped into deep wells of experience and sensibility traceable to enslavement and seen in many of the struggles of the postemancipation period, especially those that focused on issues of community empowerment, self-governance, and separatism: emigrationism, the establishment of black towns, the practice of "fusion" politics (local power-sharing arrangements with white people), the development of unincorporated black settlements on the edges of plantations and towns. Garvey presented an argument and set of projects—first and foremost, retaking their African homeland from European colonizers—that took the sobering of black prospects in the depth of the Jim Crow era and offered a breathtaking vision of political struggle and redemption. The UNIA, in turn, built on traditions of fraternalism, grass-roots politics, and religious enthusiasm.

Moreover, the UNIA may be seen as part of a larger (and still to be excavated) black political underground that evinced a hybridity of politics and political ideas and that established important bridges between the mobilizations of the 1920s and 1930s and those of the 1950s and 1960s. A number of individuals either moved between the UNIA and organizations like the NAACP without cutting ties with either, or moved on from the UNIA to the NAACP, the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union, the Nation of Islam, the Communist Party, or a variety of more localized projects. Garveyite influences can also be seen on figures like E.D. Nixon, the organizer of the Montgomery bus boycott, Malcolm X, Bob Moses, and Kwame Nkrumah, the president of Ghana. Nixon had been in the UNIA; Malcolm X's father was a prominent Garveyite; Moses' grandfather was a UNIA supporter; and Nkrumah was deeply influenced by Garvey's ideas when he was educated in the United States.

This political world has remained hidden from us in good part because scholars have not taken the political history seriously. How come? To some extent, the hostility of admired and consequential black intellectuals and activists, like W.E.B. Du Bois, who regarded Garvey as a rival and interloper, has served to discredit him and the UNIA. Du Bois disparaged Garvey as a "demagogue," whose "followers are of the lowest types of Negroes," and whose projects were "dangerous, ill-considered, impractical." So, too, has there been widespread discomfort in scholarly circles with the sort of nationalist politics the UNIA appeared to represent, particularly its insistence on the very deep and intractable divides of race and other forms of ethnic difference.

But, more than anything else, I would point to the dominance of an integrationist framework in American and African-American historical writing—a slavery-to-freedom narrative—that legitimizes aspirations for inclusion and assimilation, citizenship, and individual rights while depicting black interest in separatism and community development, in collective rights, and in forms of nationalism as the products of failure and defeat, as somehow lacking in integrity, as components of the pathologies and cycles of American racism. Acknowledging the stains of slavery and racism on our past, the integrationist framework nonetheless offers the more comforting hope of redemption and assimilation.

My book thus asks hard questions about many of the assumptions that readers may bring to their engagements with the past, and encourages them to think in expansive ways about the cast of political actors and the dimensions of politics in any historical era. Perhaps, too, it may shift some important, though previously immovable, interpretive terrain.

Steven Hahn is a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. His book The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom, based on the Nathan I. Huggins Lectures delivered at Harvard University, was published by Harvard University Press in March.