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, the Black Power Movement, and Haiti’s relationship with Black Americans.
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.
 Gaines, Kevin. American Africans in Ghana: Black Expatriates and the Civil Rights Era. UNC Press: Chapel Hill, 2007.
 Slate, Nico. Black Power Beyond Borders: The Global Dimensions of the Black Power Movement. Palgrave McMillian: New York, 2012.
 Polyne, Millery. From Douglass to Duvalier: U.S. African Americans, Haiti, and Pan-Americanism, 1870-1964. University Press of Florida: Gainesville, 2011.