From Mon Oct 2 06:21:35 2000
Date: Mon, 2 Oct 2000 03:38:57 -0400
From: Art McGee <>
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] Black History's Global Vision, 1883-1950
Precedence: bulk

Full Essay:

“But a Local Phase of a World Problem”: Black History's Global Vision, 1883–1950 (excerpt)

By Robin D. G. Kelley <>, New York University, December 1999

As a scholar who owes his formative intellectual training to ethnic studies programs and Third World solidarity movements, I am intrigued by recent discussions of how “globalization” has pushed United States scholars to think beyond the nation-state, develop “transnational” and international approaches, and reconsider “diaspora” as an analytical framework. Black studies, Chicano/a studies, and Asian American studies were diasporic from their inception, a direct outgrowth of the social movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s that gave birth to those programs. Whether they are speaking of borderlands, migrations, or diasporas, ethnic studies scholars examine the hyphen between places of “origin” and America. My particular intellectual mooring, however, was the black studies department at California State University at Long Beach. Our courses always cut across disciplinary and national boundaries, exploring various aspects of the “black world” from ancient times to the present—a world that encompassed Africa, Europe, and the Americas and wherever else this sprawling African diaspora left its mark. One of the first books assigned to us in those days was Chancellor Williams's remarkable and enigmatic The Destruction of Black Civilization, a single volume sixteen years in the making. The kind of training he felt he required to complete such a work left us in awe and revealed something of the kind of global vision that informed black studies:

“Believing that the history of the race could not be understood if studied in isolation, I began a slow and deliberately unrushed review of European history, ancient and modern, and the history of Arabs and Islamic people. I say ‘review’ because by 1950 I had already studied and taught in the three fields of American, European and Arabic history—a most fortunate circumstance for the task ahead.”

Ironically, because black studies’ original conception treated Africans and African descendants across the globe as one people (diverse and complex, of course), works by scholars such as Williams and the field more generally have often been criticized—with some justification, I might add - for essentialism or trading in fictions. At the same time, however, it is precisely this perspective of seeing black people in global terms that forced the field to be relentlessly international and comparative.

Yet even the world brought to me by my black studies professors was not so startlingly new. The particular Pan-African framework through which we viewed the black world was all too familiar before I set foot in a college classroom. Growing up in Harlem during the mid- to late 1960s, even as kids the international dimensions of our lives were so profound that they were practically taken for granted. We were part of an African diaspora before we were Americans; we were told by resident radicals that we had more in common with the Chinese than with the white folks downtown or along Riverside Drive. We were surrounded by Jamaicans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Barbadians, Haitians, ad infinitum, and they defended their home connections with a vengeance. We even drank a short-lived soda pop called Afro-Cola and were surrounded by people walking the streets in dashikis, Nehru suits, and Chinese peasant outfits. So the idea of a bounded national history set in isolation from the world contradicted my own lived experience, let alone what we as young, aspiring “Afrikans” learned in college.

Nevertheless, when I embarked on this preliminary and very incomplete project of exploring transnational perspectives coming out of African American history, I was surprised by the extent to which black scholars—including fairly conservative ones—in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century paid attention to international contexts. In the pages of forgotten survey texts and back issues of the Journal of Negro History, one finds historians with varying degrees of formal training doing what many of our colleagues are now advocating. Of course, there were precedents: for over two centuries, black writers and activists defined themselves as part of a larger international black community—an “African diaspora.” What I discovered in reading this work is that some kind of diasporic vision or sensibility, shaped by anti-racist and anti-imperialist politics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and deeply ensconced in black intellectual and historical traditions, profoundly shaped historical scholar- ship on black people in the New World. That the work of these pioneering historians is uneven and full of flaws goes without saying, but their insistence on seeing African American and United States history in global terms, of refusing to allow national boundaries to define their field of vision, offers important insights for current efforts to “internationalize American history.”

Of course, not all black historians shared this vision, and those who did were not necessarily on the same page ideologically. On many issues they differed sharply, and in some cases intellectual debates were exacerbated by personal animosities and professional jealousies. More significantly, to think about the history of black people in transnational or diasporic terms does not automatically render one an opponent of American nationalism or even of a nation-centered approach to history. Not all of the historians discussed below were militant black nationalists or active proponents of Pan-Africanism. Scholars such as George Washington Williams, Benjamin Quarles, and John Hope Franklin might have extended their scope beyond the boundaries of the United States, but their work was focused primarily on the American republic and how unsuccessful it has been at fulfilling its promise of democracy and freedom for all. W. E. B. Du Bois and C. L. R. James had world revolution in mind; each in his own way was trying to figure out the global implications of black revolt. Nevertheless, despite their differences in methodology, politics, and relation to the academy, the historians discussed below did share a sensitivity to international contexts. Taken together, they offered a different framework for understanding United States history and the history of the West in general, but - much to the impoverishment of American history—their work had been dismissed or overlooked by the mainstream historical profession.

There are several reasons why the early historical scholarship on African Americans sustained an international perspective, and not all of those reasons can be explained in terms of W. E. B. Du Bois's notion of double consciousness—the problematic of having to negotiate between an “American” identity and a black or “African” identity. First, there is the problem of citizenship. Before the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, the question as to whether African Americans were citizens of the United States had not been settled. The experiences of free African Americans during the antebellum era demonstrated that citizenship was beyond their grasp, and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and the Dred Scott decision in 1857 denying black people citizenship rights cleared up any ambiguity on the matter. The implications for historical scholarship and national identity are enormous. While some black leaders insisted on their right to citizenship, others such as Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Jermain Loguen, James T. Holly, Samuel Ringgold Ward, Paul Cuffe, and Martin Delany called on black people to leave the country and find a home- land of their own. Not that they were willing to relinquish their claims to citizenship; rather, they reached a point of profound pessimism and began to question their allegiance to and identification with the United States.

Whether they thought about leaving or not, the question of citizenship always loomed large, compelling some to renounce the United States altogether. The nineteenth-century black activist H. Ford Douglass once said: “I can hate this Government without being disloyal, because it has stricken down my manhood, and treated me as a saleable commodity... I can join a foreign enemy and fight against it, without being a traitor, because it treats me as an alien and a stranger.” Emigration not only rendered African Americans “transnational” people by default but it remained at the heart of a very long debate within black communities about their sense of national belonging. African American leaders searched outside the United States for political allies and often sought connections with North America's colonized people—the Native Americans. Moreover, long after the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, the question of African American citizenship had hardly been resolved, and emigrationist sentiment remained a central issue in black political discourse, rendering both issues critical topics for early historical investigation. Indeed, Carter G. Woodson's 1921 essay “Fifty Years of Negro Citizenship as Qualified by the United States Supreme Court” was reprinted and widely circulated three years later as a small booklet. In it, Woodson does not mince words: “The citizenship of the Negro in this country is a fiction.”

Another reason why so many black intellectuals paid attention to the international dimensions of African American history has to do with the mainstream historical profession itself from the late nineteenth through the mid-twentieth century. While Ian Tyrrell's essay in this issue points to examples of transnationalism and comparative approaches during this period, he also observes an intens- ification of nationalism and a greater emphasis on the nation-state, which in many ways had become the focal point of the new “scientific” history. It is within the context of nationalism and imperialism that a handful of leading historians attempted to fashion a modern conception of history. The expanding empires of Europe and the United States (at least momentarily) prompted the creation of new genealogies of nations, new myths about the inevitability of nations, their “temperament,” their destinies. While a few exceptional historians still dreamed of a unitary world history and on occasion exhibited a deep distrust of mass nationalist sentiment, United States historiography during this time was largely rooted in racism, Manifest Destiny, social Darwinism, and imperialism.

In contrast, black historians both within and outside of the academy overwhelmingly resisted the nationalist, racist historiography of the era. In a measured but sharp critique of nationalism in the modern world, the formidable historian Charles Wesley argued that imperialism was a natural outgrowth of nationalism. “Under the guidance of the national spirit,” Wesley wrote, “imperialism made its way into Africa, Asia and the islands of the sea. The state, it was urged, was strengthened by the extension of its political power over colonial territory. The scramble for colonial empires was a distinct aspect of nationalism for the latter part of the nineteenth century. The glory of the nation seemed to be, in part, in its control of an overseas empire.” Wesley's critique was shared by most, if not all, of the historians discussed below, and one could argue that their scholarship, taken together, stood in direct opposition to imperialism. Of course, it would be an exaggeration to claim that this work was uniformly “radical,” particularly since some black intellectuals reluctantly tolerated if not embraced the educational component of the imperial order, that is, its “civilizing mission.” After all, even scholars as diverse as George Washington Williams, Benjamin Brawley, and Rayford Logan understood imperialism as a bearer of modernity for the colored world—the one unintentionally positive consequence of European domination.

For all their distrust of, or outright opposition to, United States nationalism, most of those early black historians were engaged in a different sort of nation-building project. Whether it was deliberate or not, they contributed to the formation of a collective identity, reconstructing a glorious African past for the purposes of overturning degrading representations of blackness and establishing a firm cultural basis for a kind of “peoplehood.” They identified with a larger black world in which New World Negroes were inheritors of African as well as European civilizations. To varying degrees, they were products of the same political imperatives that led to the formation of Pan-African and other black international movements. Thus, in assessing the political basis for black historians' peculiar internationalism, one might argue that it is a manifestation of a kind of “nationalism” or rather a diasporic identity that might be best described as “imagined community.” However, we must proceed with caution when comparing diasporas and diasporic identities with nations and nationalisms. First, the African diaspora is not a sovereign territory with established boundaries, though it is seen as “inherently limited” to people of African descent. Second, while there is no official language, there seems to be a consistent effort to locate, no matter how mythical, a single culture with singular historical roots. Third, many members of this diaspora see themselves as an oppressed “nation” without a homeland, or they imagine Africa as home—either a place of return or a place from which they are permanently exiled. Therefore, they understood their task as writing the “history of a race”—a people scattered by force and circumstance. Negro history—indeed, world history itself—always began in Africa.