Steven Hahn advances "A Rebellious Take on African-American History"





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....



comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


Randll Reese Besch - 8/13/2009

The states were left to their own devices on this and there was no Fugitive Slave Act? That state's rights and their treatment of blacks was left up to them Slave and Free.

That would mean that any "Red-leg" expeditions to retrieve slaves escaped to freedom could run into armed conflict on their own. Would that have escalated into a Civil War? Or would it have gone on for decades as states fought over human rights to be free and to be free to own other humans?

Subscribe to our mailing list