starlady: Anna Maria from PoTC at the helm: "bring me that horizon" (bring me that horizon)
[personal profile] starlady
Berlin, Ira. The Making of African America. New York: Penguin Books, 2010.

Ira Berlin is apparently one of the giants of African American historiography, as well as something of a provocateur; in this new book he offers a reading of the history of Africans and African Americans in America that is orthogonal, but complementary and necessary, to the grand narrative of "from slavery to freedom" which has dominated the history books (to the extent that African American history is discussed at all outside African American studies departments, that is; but more on that anon).

Berlin instead offers a view of African American history that in essence is almost like a standing wave; for him this history is a constant dichotomy between movement (between places) and place itself, a simultaneous deep sense of rootedness and a peripatetic impulse. In Berlin's telling this history so far can be divided into four great migrations: the first, from Africa to the American colonies from the 1600s to the end of the C18th; the second, from the American littoral to the southern American interior in the C19th prior to emancipation; the third, from the rural South to the urban North in the C20th; and the fourth, ongoing, from Africa and the Caribbean to all points within the United States. Berlin is insistent on viewing slavery, sharecropping, and internal and international migration through the lens of the demands of global capital (which interestingly enough leads to talk of capital before capitalism, in the case of the first migration), which is refreshing.

For that matter, I liked Berlin's insistence on viewing the advent of African peoples in America as another form of migration while at the same time acknowledging the untold gulf between free and forced migrants. As he says,

Differences in the nature and timing of the arrival of Africans and Europeans (forced and free) served as a means of excluding people of African descent from the ideology that celebrated the United States as a global sanctuary from oppression and as fostering material improvement for all. […]

While the distinction between forced and free migrations cloaks the fact that all migrations involve cultural transformations, these various migrations also mask the essential reality that even the most traumatic uprootings do not necessarily dissolve the migrants' humanity, their sense of self, and their determination to shape their own lives. […] Emphasizing the distinction between the voluntary and the coerced, moreover, revivifies the myth of stability--the timelessness of premodern society and fixity of peasant life. Such notions may be useful foils for understanding the hyperactivity identified with modernity, but they have long since been exposed as hollow stereotypes. Geographic movement, as students of migration have demonstrated, has been and remains the normal condition of mankind.

I knew the outlines of this story in the most general sense, of course, but the second migration in particular was almost entirely new to me as such, and the details of post-emancipation life for black people in the South were also largely unfamiliar. I've said before that I don't think American history is taught well in U.S. schools, and I say that as someone who did by and large have a fairly evenhanded, acknowledging-of-moral-and-ethical-ambiguities education in the subject prior to college. I don't think there should be any question that a fuller engagement with what President Obama called "the original sin of slavery", as well as with what happened between 1865 and 1965 and how the promise of Emancipation and Reconstruction was systematically betrayed, in U.S. classrooms would make a real, positive difference in how this country talks about and conceptualizes race and racism and what to do about the latter.

Anyway. In the meantime, there's this book, which is almost too easy to read--for my tastes I would like a little more dates, a little more quotation of other scholars as opposed to lining them up in endnotes, a little more reporting of actual experience and documentary evidence as opposed to well-supported and well-written synthesis. But as it stands and despite these quibbles Berlin has written a great work of "popular history" that deserves to be popular.
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