Internationalizing Black American History

Higher Ed Gamma

Who is a Black American?  Barack Obama, the child of a Kenyan economist and an economic anthropologist, who was raised primarily by his white maternal grandmother?  Kwame Akroma-Ampim Kusi Anthony Appiah, the London-born political and moral philosopher and cultural theorist, who was raised Kumasi, Ghana, and whose parents were a British children’s book author from a family that traced its ancestry to William the Conqueror, and a lawyer, diplomat, and politician from Ghana’s Ashanti region?

How about Claude McKay, the Jamaican-born Harlem Renaissance poet and novelist, or John Brown Russwurm, who co-founded the United States’s first Black newspaper and was also born in Jamaica, or Kwame Ture (born Stokely Carmichael), who was 11 when he arrived in the United States from Trinidad and Tobago, or Shirley Chisholm, who spent a large part of her childhood in Barbados?

Today, over 10 percent of African Americans were born outside the United States and over a fifth (21 percent) are immigrants or the children of immigrants.

How we view the past is always colored by our present-day vantage point, but long before the recent surge in Black migration from sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, African American history and culture had an international dimension.

Even in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, pioneering Black historians stressed that Black Americans were part of a much broader African diaspora and that the history of race and labor systems couldn’t be understood in geographic isolation.

Black historians, past and present, as different in ideology as Benjamin Brawley, W.E.B. DuBois, John Hope Franklin, Michael A. Gomez, Gerald Horne, Robin D.G. Kelley, Rayford Logan, Nell Painter, Benjamin Quarrels, Isabel Wilkerson, Chancellor Williams, George Washington Williams, and Carter G. Woodson, insisted that the history of Black Americans and indeed of the United States must be viewed in global, comparative, and diasporic terms.

As UCLA historian Kelley put it in 1999, Black scholars, from the late 19th century onward, offered a novel transnational “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.”

Many pioneering Black historians were highly critical of American nation-building, which hinged on the displacement and dispossession of Native Americans, the exploitation of Africans and their descendants, and the conquest of a vast empire of land from Mexico and other countries.  But these scholars, many of whom were heavily influenced by currents of Pan-African thought, were engaged in their own nation-building project:  To assert a collective African American identity by recovering and reconstructing the African past, upending degrading representations of blackness, and toppling claims of figures from Kant to Toynbee that Blacks were a people without history.

Comparative, transnational, and diasporic history can take many different forms.  Ther are works, like Gomez’s or John Thornton’s that examine the how West and Central African belief systems, aesthetics, religious practices, foodways, and much more were adapted or modified in New World circumstances.  There are examinations of the African American role in anti-imperialist and the decolonialist struggles.

There are also comparative studies like Eric Foner’s comparative analysis of the shift from slavery to new systems of racial classification, segregation, and debt peonage and Sidney Mintz’s and Sven Beckert’s studies of the role of slave-grown sugar and cotton in the development of modern capitalism.  Then, too, there are studies of shifts in racial identities, like Nell Painter’s The History of White People, and Isabel Wilkerson’s use of the concept of caste to understand America’s system of racial inequality.

As Kelley is quick to point out, “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.”  For example, in his study of 19th century Black nationalists, UnAfrican Americans, the Nigerian-born scholar Tunde Adelek demonstrates that 19th century demonstrates that such figures as Martin Delany, Alexander Crummell, and Harry McNeal Turner strongly supported the mission civilisatrice , the West’s civilizing mission to uplift Africa, and, as a result, helped lay the foundation for European colonization of Africa.

This approach to Black history offers a powerful way to internationalize U.S. history.  It not only provides a potent antidote to celebratory claims of American exceptionalism and myths of national innocence and the unambiguous march of progress and justice.  By exposing the ugly underside of this society’s history while bringing to light the extraordinary agency and influence of an exploited, marginalized people, a much more complete vision of U.S. history emerges, a vision that reconnects the United States and the world.

A former colleague, Gerald Horne, has played a leading role in charting the globalized, comparative future of African American history and bringing fresh perspectives to topics not previously viewed through the prism of race.  An extraordinarily prolific scholar, Horne, the John and Rebecca Moores professor of history and African American studies at the University of Houston, has written a series of books of remarkable chronological, geographic, and topical range.  With his transnational and comparative approach, he might well be seen as C.L.R. James’s successor.

The Princeton, Berkeley, and Columbia educated Horne has published scholarly books on everything from the American, Haitian, and Texas revolutions to the Associated Negro Press, aviation, boxing, Hollywood, the American left, jazz, labor, settler colonialism, and the pivotal role of U.S. ships in the illegal transatlantic slave trade.

His books on American diplomatic history include studies of U.S. involvement in Egypt and Ethiopia in the late 19th and early 20th century, in the post-Civil War South Seas, and in Kenya, Southeast Asia, Zimbabwe in the mid and late 20th century.  He has also published biographies of John Howard Lawson, William Patterson, Paul Robeson, Shirley Graham DuBois, W.E.B. Dubois.

Especially striking are his books that foreground race and the role of African Americans in subjects where Black perspectives were largely ignored by the historical mainstream, for example, in the use of Black troops during the early 20th century Mexican Revolution, Black responses to the Cold War, and African American attitudes toward the rise of the Japanese empire before World War II.

To be sure, Horne is not alone in writing about Black resistance to slavery during the Revolutionary era or the violent confrontations between police and residence of Watts in 1965.  But his work underscores an unsettling fact:  That by failing to recognize the centrality of race and slavery in American cultural, diplomatic, economic, and political history and in the formation of the modern world system, leading historians not only obscured African American agency, Black perspectives, and the impact of black culture on everything we think of as American, but distorted and impaired public understanding of the country’s underlying power dynamics.

James M. Banner Jr., who taught at Princeton for many years before creating the National History Center, the History News Service, and the National Humanities Alliance, recently declared that “all history is revisionist history.”  History is certainly an argumentative discipline.  Historians not only write clashing accounts and interpretations of past events and decisions, but vigorously debate the purposes and uses of historical inquiry, the dynamics of social transformation, and the possibility and desirability of historical objectivity.

Just as consensus is the toxic enemy of creativity and innovation, it is also the enemy of historical insight and progress.

History, a discipline that for too many years defined itself narrowly, as the study of politics, statecraft, and warfare from leaders’ vantage point, has certainly broadened its range of subjects, methods, and evidentiary base.  But until extraordinarily recently, history was a regrettably exclusionary discipline that drew a sharp divide between those whose accounts mattered and those whose writings didn’t.

If you want to understand why diverse perspectives matter, you need look no further than at our standard curriculum.  American history looks fundamentally different when we shift perspective and view the past through the lens of African American, Asian American, Latinx, LGBTQ+, and women’s history, and disabilities studies.

Or take another example offered by the insightful commentator who writes under the nom de plume Unemployed Northeastern.  Look at the Great Books canon between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the 16th century, between Aurelius and Plutarch and Erasmus, Machiavelli, Montagne, Rabelais.  Which books are typically assigned?  Certainly Dante and Chaucer and perhaps Anselm and Acquinas.

But look what’s left out:  “The Golden Age of India, the Golden Age of the Islamic World, the Golden Age of the Maya, the flowering of fiction in China and Japan…. The Shahnameh, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Outlaws of the Marsh, The Conference of the Birds, Vis and Ramin (the explicit inspiration for Tristan and Isolde), the Popol Vuh, The Tale of the Genji, the Tale of the Heike, various retellings of the Ramayana and Mahabharata – all of these are monumental contributions to literature made by non-Europeans during the ‘Dark Ages….’” Those were just a few reading suggestions off the top of Unemployed Northeastern’s head.

It’s unsettling to discover that “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Ars longa, vita brevis.  Understanding takes time, and, alas, life is all too short.  The acquisition of wisdom Is a collective task that requires the inclusion of perspectives previous ignored and voices hitherto unheard.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

Steven Mintz
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Thursday, July 14, 2022
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