Rethinking Afro-Indigenous History in the United States

Historians in the News
tags: African American history, Native American history, Indigenous history

this is an adapted excerpt from An Afro-Indigenous History of the United StatesUsed with the permission of the publisher, Beacon Press. Copyright © 2021 by Kyle T. Mays.

When we think of Africans arriving on the shores of what would become the United States, we see them through the lens of their condition of bondage beginning in the 16th century. We see them as African. As a result, we tend to assume that whatever identity they had, because of the Middle Passage, was ripped away, never to exist again. They were no longer indigenous. We also fold them into the project of US democracy.

It is true that Indigenous people are often erased in discussions of history and memory. That is the work of settler colonialism in the US. Even more, people see Indigenous people as having vanished; that’s why we have mascots and other forms of racism that are unique to Native people. Mascots perpetuate the idea that Indigenous peoples are either all dead or frozen in time. Therefore, they exist only as a caricature. Indeed, as Philip Deloria reminds us, the US nation-state’s very identity is constructed through “playing Indian.” However, I would pose this question: What if we remembered that those Africans forced to come to the British colony of Virginia were, actually, Indigenous people? How would that help us think differently about early Atlantic encounters between Indigenous peoples from the African continent and those in North America, and beyond?

A goal in this essay is to provide a few examples of these early indigenous encounters, arguing that enslaved Africans did not lose their ideas of what it meant to be Indigenous. Instead, I place them within a world where they maintained their idea of democracy while also being forced to come to terms with the condition of their blackness. Furthermore, I argue that we should, as best as we can, take seriously the trauma of what the transatlantic slave trade did to Africans. How did they cope with their new condition in a new place? We can only answer this question with the limited historical data that we have. I don’t mean to suggest that people of African descent are the First Peoples of this land; that is erasure, and a form of anti-Indigenous rhetoric that some African Americans perpetuate. I am interested in acknowledging the history of enslaved Africans, and asserting their humanity in its fullest.

Considering the trauma of enslavement, we uncritically assign the mark of enslavement to African peoples. We forget or minimize that these people carried with them their language, cultures, histories, and relationships. In rethinking how we view Afro-Indigenous history in the United States, we first need to recall that Africans forced to come to this country did not racialize themselves as Black in their homelands; they had their own indigenous roots and tribal beliefs; they were connected to lands, customs, and cosmologies. They were Indigenous.

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