U.S. Intellectual History Blog

(Black) American Exceptionalism?

     

Thinking about discussions in recent days about American Studies, Christopher Lasch, and the various cultural and intellectual wars over the last thirty years, I’m always thinking of new ways to view old topics. So, while today’s post won’t deal in particular with those topics I’ve just mentioned, I hope to provide some further food for thought about general themes that the Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians have dealt with both on the blog and at the recent conference. It’s also a chance to put together some thoughts that have been spurred by still-forming research questions in my mind.

 

            Historians looking at the Black American freedom struggle have always strove to find new ways to interpret old, oft-researched events. Like other fields in American history, Black American history has benefited from the “transnational turn”, allowing historians to look at how Blacks in the United States have looked elsewhere for support in the battle against American racism. In many ways this isn’t a new story. After all, when Black American history was being “born” after the American Civil War, the earliest Black historians always began the story of Black Americans outside the United States. Of course, like the vast majority of stories about groups of people who became known as “Americans”, the Black American story begins across the Atlantic. (The Native Americans may be the one exception, but of course many school kids in the United States have learned for decades of their crossing the Bering Strait.) Of course, that’s where the similarities with other groups of Americans ends. Right?

            A recent book that I read for class, Forging Diasporas, has spurred me to think of the Black freedom struggle in the United States in a different light. In case you’ve not had the pleasure to read the book (and I highly recommend you do so!), Forging Diasporas by Frank Guridy addresses the intellectual and cultural exchanges between African Americans and Afro-Cubans between 1898 and 1959. In Guridy’s book, the Afro-Cubans refer to the African Americans, in many ways, the vanguard for Black peoples across the world. The unique position of African Americans within the regional hegemon, and later world superpower, gave them (in the eyes of Afro-Cubans) a special place of influence and power within the Black diaspora. The place of African Americans within the larger African diaspora is a topic that historians are just starting to consider. Yet, I believe, it’s one that could aid in the further development of fields such as American, Southern, and African American Studies.

            The key question to ask here is, how did Blacks in other regions of the world view African Americans? And, to be fair, we’d have to expand this to include other peoples of color who were either directly or indirectly affected by European and American imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries. Most books and articles that examine the transnational exploits of African Americans still places that group in the center of any narrative. That’s understandable, considering that those books are asking questions about aspects of the African American freedom struggle. But what would a book about the image of African Americans all over the world look like?

            First, there are a variety of moments in the 20th century alone which could form the basis for such a book. African decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s, the fight against Apartheid in South Africa, and Cuba’s turn towards Communism under Castro all provide opportunities to talk about the Black American image all over the world. Already, there’s several books addressing the ways in which the African American freedom struggle was used as inspiration in South Africa. Likewise, Tim Tyson’s Radio Free Dixie, about the exploits of Robert F. Williams in the United States, Cuba, and Communist China in the 1960s, allow those Third World voices to speak about how they perceive the plight and resistance of African Americans. There’s also a variety of books that deal with the Black Freedom Struggle and expatriates in Ghana,[1] the Black Power Movement,[2] and Haiti’s relationship with Black Americans.[3]

            I’ll argue that there’s a thread that runs through all these stories: an idea of Black American Exceptionalism. This isn’t to re-start any old and tired debates about whether or not the United States itself is “Exceptional”; instead, it’s to suggest that the Black Freedom Struggle occupied (and probably still occupies) a unique place in the minds of many activists around the world. That unique place is due, largely, to the position of the United States itself in the minds of many of those same activists. Whether it’s as an imperial hyperpower or a misguided Republic with some good ideals to emulate, the internal actions of the United States in the “American Century” have never truly been “internal”. They’ve always been on a global stage, and the actions of African American activists have taken up considerable space on that stage.

            A final thought. As I consider the implications of such thoughts for my field of study, American history since 1965, it occurs to me that the story of Black American Exceptionalism becomes ever more complicated. What did the prominence of African American athletes, entertainers, and academics do to that Black American image in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s? And of course, with an African American president, the Black American image has in many ways has been forced to confront the American image in the most direct way possible.  There’s a lot that can be done here, especially if historians are willing to go across oceans (as other authors mentioned in this piece have done) and understand print and televised images of African Americans around the world. And, in consideration of the various “studies” that I mentioned above, it can show how ideas of “America”, the  “American South”, and “African Americans” can cross borders and be shaped by those cross-border travels.


[1] Gaines, Kevin. American Africans in Ghana: Black Expatriates and the Civil Rights Era. UNC Press: Chapel Hill, 2007.

[2] Slate, Nico. Black Power Beyond Borders: The Global Dimensions of the Black Power Movement. Palgrave McMillian: New York, 2012.

[3] Polyne, Millery. From Douglass to Duvalier: U.S. African Americans, Haiti, and Pan-Americanism, 1870-1964. University Press of Florida: Gainesville, 2011.

 


11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This isn’t to re-start any old and tired debates about whether or not the United States itself is “Exceptional”; instead, it’s to suggest that the Black Freedom Struggle occupied (and probably still occupies) a unique place in the minds of many activists around the world.

    Um, yeah, Robert. Heh. It’s always and it’s still 1963, the good bad old days when the heroes and villains stood in high relief.

    However, the American Black Freedom Struggle [all caps] was won in 1964, capped in 1965, by legislation that erased any and all legal recognition of the very concept of race.

    [With the exception of “affirmative action,” another story but really just a footnote.]

    There indeed was an American Black Exceptionalism in the eyes of the world both European and African–first slavery then of course Jim Crow legislation [the latter seldom echoed elsewhere save apartheid regimes of SA and Rhodesia]. How the “cradle of liberty” perversely held onto racism then racialism for two centuries was nothing short of exceptional, or as they called it at first, “peculiar.”

    As for Black/African Exceptionalism–“Négritude” if you will–I’m not sure how well the American Black Experience can be thrown into the same pot with it. Again, with the exception of the apartheid regimes, the oppression of European colonialism was not of the same character as American racism–the colonizers didn’t come as settlers but as administrators, and stood and lived apart—usually with the thought of someday returning home to Europe. There was never any thought given to actually dealing with the race question.

    There was no question atall. We are us and they are them. What question??

    I admit a resistance to “lumping,” Robert. The Mau Mau uprising against the English is pretty easy to understand, as is The Struggle, of the sons and daughters of slaves not only winning their freedom, but of no prospect or even desire of going “home” to Africa.

    The Struggle continues, but as a politics, it was won by 1965. Now it’s a philosophy, or a cultural thing, or perhaps just a lot of idle postmodern talk.

    For who is actually arguing for “separate but equal” status in the 21st century?

    [As always, I’m inspired by your provocative posts, RGII. But do keep your head down.]

  2. Thanks for the reply. I admit part of what you quoted above was, frankly, just an exhausted sentence I squeezed out in the middle of the night. I always meant Black American Freedom Struggle, of course; and you’re right that many of the struggles around the world were very different from that of American Blacks in the USA. Yet, I can’t help but think about various instances when activists, resistance movements, etc., referred to what Black Americans were doing in the United States in the course of their own dialogues about freedom.

    Now that’s not to say that happened everywhere, and I’m not making that case at all. But it’s a way to open up a larger question: how did perceptions of Black Americans (and other groups in the United States suffering some form of discrimination within the nation) come to shape the hopes, fears, and ideas of activists around the world?

    Sure, they are them and we are us–but there’s a long history of contact between activists in various countries. And when those activists, whether it’s DuBois in 1903 or MLK in the 1960s, constantly connected the various struggles together, I think it’s something to at least consider. Again, no one’s saying they’re all the same.

  3. And, in terms of the 1970s through the 1990s, I want historians to consider the impact of Black American imagery around the world. Again, I’d argue it’s never separated from those concerns about America’s place in the world. It’s something I’ll be thinking about in my own research down the road.

    • But it’s a way to open up a larger question: how did perceptions of Black Americans (and other groups in the United States suffering some form of discrimination within the nation) come to shape the hopes, fears, and ideas of activists around the world?

      Oh, I think that part works, RG. However, Black Power [Stokely, Tommie Smith & John Carlos] signals the victory of The Struggle in America, a drift to practical irrelevance and rhetorical noise over genuine activism.

      As for their “imagery,” I expect these American figures will be forgotten where Mandela [and even Patrice Lumumba] will live forever. “Activism” requires action, not just talk.

      I could be wrong, but I expect the big talkers to be more popular with those whose specialty themselves is talk.

      • There’s some truth in what you say, Tom. But we should remember that the range of action, especially collective action, was quite limited for these figures. They might be blamed for banking too much on a Leninist politics of vanguardism, contra Mandela’s more Gandhian tactics, yes. But the social and political issues they confronted in the U.S. were quite different than what the African National Congress was fighting against. The ANC was able to build a counter-hegemonic front all around the globe partly because apartheid and the South African government were so visibly immoral. Structural racism continued (and continues) in the U.S., but in less visible ways.

      • We have no disagreement, KCP. But where we meet white racialism with intellectual derision and moral revulsion, we indulge non-white racialism with a pat on the head. “Race consciousness” and Black Power brought the end of The Struggle, “radical chic” became the banality of mere cant, “activism” no longer much more than talk.

  4. Great post, Robert. I think you’re right to make these connections. Just because the US civil rights movement was different from struggles by people of African descent elsewhere–truism alert–doesn’t mean these connections aren’t worth exploring, especially since, as you make clear, so many activists and intellectuals made these connections themselves. Such reception history is in fact so interesting because of the differences.

    In any case, keep up the great blogging here.

  5. Excellent stuff, Robert. I can’t help but go back again to Stokely Carmichael’s embrace of Fidel Castro as a a fellow “Black” comrade and what does it tell us about the meanings of blackness in that era. There’s still much to be written about Afro-Latin American connections–as well as disconnects–with African Americans. At the same time, one quip I tend to raise is that when Black Americans look to the south, both academics and political figures, they misread the meanings of racial difference in Latin America, where racial categories and racism operate quite differently than in the U.S. A clear example of this is Henry Louise Gates Jr’s documentaries on Afro-Latin America, which, although enlightening, often exhibit this limited perspective. For instance, in the documentary on Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Gates doesn’t really examine black vs. mulato dynamics in the Haitian Revolution, and reduces the Revolution to a “black” phenomenon. A similar problem can be found in the Polyne book you allude to, which confusingly utilizes the category of “African Americans” to designate all peoples of African descent in the continent. We end up then with clunky constructs such as “U.S. African Americans,” “Cuban African Americans,” etc, which don’t speak to how people actually identify, racially or ethnically speaking.

    • Self-correction: when Black Americans look to the south, both academics and political figures, they SOMETIMES misread the meanings of racial difference in Latin America, where racial categories and racism operate quite differently than in the U.S. Oops.

  6. At the same time, one quip I tend to raise is that when Black Americans look to the south, both academics and political figures, they misread the meanings of racial difference in Latin America, where racial categories and racism operate quite differently than in the U.S.

    Aye, Kahlil, a better explication of what I was getting at. Certain US intellectuals often sought a pan-Africanism that simply isn’t there–as most “pan” movements of all kinds have proven to be lacking necessary nuance.

  7. Great dialogue here. I’m sorry I haven’t been able to respond recently, but there’s a lot to chew on here!

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