Posted in African Americans, assimilation, historiography, marginalization, racism, resistance, slavery

A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South, from Slavery to the Great Migration

Hahn, Steven. A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South, from Slavery to the Great Migration. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003.

(This includes a historiography that Hahn’s book challenges.)

African-American historiography is primarily the story of a people struggling to be counted as a part of American history—to have their voices heard and their agency recognized. American historians have traditionally shown enslaved people as lacking volition or agency to change their conditions without outside assistance from white planters, or organizations such as the Union Army or the Freedman’s Bureau.  In A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South, from Slavery to the Great Migration, Steven Hahn challenges these assumptions by examining how enslaved and free black people constituted themselves as political actors, how slaves practiced politics, and by tracing the rural origins of popular black nationalism.  In order to understand these issues, his research focused on the period of time in which “African-American men in the South won and then lost the right to vote.”[1]

Peter Kolchin, in his book entitled American Slavery, 1619 – 1877, explains that until recently, most historians of slavery paid far more attention to the behavior of the masters than to that of the slaves, due to the fact that most enslaved individuals were illiterate and therefore left no written records.  Slaves appeared in historical works primarily as objects of white action.[2]  Blatant racism also played a large role in how historians traditionally portrayed slaves, according to Kolchin.

Ulrich B. Phillips, the era’s most celebrated and influential expert on slavery, combined a sophisticated portrait of the white planters’ life and behavior with crude passing generalizations about the life and behavior of their black slaves. Noting that “the planters had a saying . . . that a negro was what a white man made him,” Phillips portrayed the plantation as a “school constantly training and controlling pupils who were in a backward state of civilization”; through this educational process the slaves “became largely standardized into the predominant plantation type.”[3]

Framing black slaves in this manner affected how society understood the mentality and volition of not only blacks as an enslaved people, but also determined how free blacks would be viewed following emancipation.  Hahn attempts to counter these perspectives by presenting his arguments through two main themes.

The first theme shows that for African-American communities, politics encompassed not just elections and formal government, but “collective struggles for what might be termed socially meaningful power.”[4]  The second theme emphasizes black agency: “African-Americans continually made and remade their politics and political history into complex relations and shifting events.”[5]  Hahn provides a way to think about victim/oppressor paradigms differently by showing the political struggles of courageous individuals and communities in the South.   However, Hahn is not the only historian to reveal black political agency before the Civil Rights era.  Two other comparable works are W. E. B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880 and Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.   All three of these authors are considered to be part of the revisionist tradition of historical writing.  Revisionists work to reinterpret conventional views on evidence, motivations, and decision-making processes surrounding historical events.

Many studies of the ten years immediately following the Civil War (the period known as Reconstruction) propagated an assumption of inferiority, laziness, and corruption on behalf of the entire black race, a notion that has extended into our present recollections.  Du Bois was the first to successfully counter these suppositions in 1935, with the publication of Black Reconstruction.  He stated that he wrote his version of Reconstruction with the understanding that African-Americans are human beings: “I am going to tell this story as though Negroes were ordinary human beings.”[6]  This simple statement sums up hundreds of years of presumed inferiority that continues even today in the writing of history.  Although not recognized by the white historical establishment of his time, Du Bois interpreted Reconstruction’s failure as the crucible of civil rights legislation.  In other words, Du Bois showed that the era of Reconstruction witnessed an attempt by African-Americans to actively shape American politics.  Du Bois’ interpretation of the revolutionary character of Reconstruction was finally reaffirmed in Eric Foner’s 1988 publication Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.[7]

Before Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction, many historians interpreted as hopeless the effort to offer civil rights to freed African-Americans.  William A. Dunning was a leading figure of this school of thought (known as the Dunning School), which began in the early twentieth century.  According to Dunning, Reconstruction contributed immense suffering to a defeated South, and could not be interpreted as offering any mode of advancement for the negroes.[8]  Eric Foner offered a short analysis of the Dunning School in his book, Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction, where he wrote:

Their account of the era rested, as one member of the Dunning school put it, on the assumption of “negro incapacity.” Finding it impossible to believe that blacks could ever be independent actors on the stage of history, with their own aspirations and motivations, Dunning, et al. portrayed African Americans either as “children”, ignorant dupes manipulated by unscrupulous whites, or as savages, their primal passions unleashed by the end of slavery.[9]

Dunning contended that freedmen had proved incapable of self-government and thus brought segregation upon themselves.  The Dunning School approach dominated scholarly and popular depictions of history from the early 1900s through the 1950s.[10]

Although he was not part of the Dunning School, E. Merton Coulter promulgated similar views.  According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, he “framed his literary corpus to praise the Old South, glorify Confederate heroes, vilify northerners, and denigrate southern blacks.”[11]  Many channels of influence enabled him to sway society’s view of African-Americans: he taught at the University of Georgia for sixty years, founded the Southern Historical Association, and edited the Georgia Historical Quarterly for fifty years.  In Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, Eric Foner wrote about E. Merton Coulter:

The fact that blacks took part in government, wrote E. Merton Coulter in the last full-scale history of Reconstruction written entirely within the Dunning tradition, was a “diabolical” development, “to be remembered, shuddered at, and execrated.” Yet while these works abounded in horrified references to “negro rule” and “negro government”, blacks in fact played little role in the narratives. Their aspirations, if mentioned at all, were ridiculed, and their role in shaping the course of events during Reconstruction ignored. When the writers spoke of “the South” or “the people”, they meant whites. Blacks appeared either as passive victims of white manipulation or as an unthinking people whose “animal natures” threatened the stability of civilized society.”[12]

It is this tradition of paving over the humanity of black people that revisionist historians, such as Hahn, DuBois, and Foner, aim to counter.

Foner’s Reconstruction worked to consolidate the revisionist consensus: although state governments and the Republican Congress during Reconstruction were very much creatures of their time, they accomplished much that was good and noble.[13]  Foner, like DuBois, noted how many beneficial social changes came as a result of Reconstruction, such as public health programs, education, and welfare.  Foner emphasized the role that former slaves played in Reconstruction and emphatically rejected the notion that sometimes appears even in revisionist scholarship, that whites were the only active agents of Reconstruction.[14]  Steven Hahn continued to challenge the notion of “white-only agency” in A Nation Under Our Feet.

In his review of A Nation Under Our Feet, Brian Kelly explains that Hahn committed to challenge the “liberal integrationist framework” that, in his view, underpinned much of even the best recent scholarship on emancipation and its aftermath.  Kelly stated:

In place of a framework that ostensibly “measures politicization chiefly by what came to freed people from the outside” and that privileges “inclusion and assimilation, the pursuit of individual rights” while characterizing “separatism and community development, the pursuit of collective rights, protonationalism” as “responses to failures and defeats,” Hahn emphasizes the aspiration for self-determination that—in various forms—animated black politics “across much of the rural South.”[15]

In other words, aspirations for self-determination motivated early black politics, rather than a white liberal integrationist mission to save the newly emancipated.  Hahn showed how shared work experience, kinship, and family ties that were forged before emancipation were instrumental to sustaining these “spatially fluid” communities and in holding together the institutional “chains and threads” of resistance in the face of fluctuating external pressures.[16]

Hahn’s narrative emphasized the critical role played by black churches in cultivating local politics: first as “the slaves’ houses of politics as well as their houses of worship” and, after emancipation, as institutional anchors for collective self-assertion and training schools from which scattered rural communities could draw an accountable local political leadership.[17]  These and other self-governed institutions proved essential over the half century following emancipation to sustaining black aspirations.  Hahn illustrated how grassroots networks of kin groups and local organizations gave structure, shape, and continuity with the past to each new movement.[18]

[1] Steven Hahn, A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South, from Slavery to the Great Migration (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003), 3.

[2] Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, 1619-1877 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993), 134.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Hahn, A Nation Under Our Feet, 3.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] W.E.B. Du Bois, “Black Reconstruction: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880,” (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1935). (accessed October 18, 2013).

[7] James M. Campbell and Rebecca J. Fraser, Reconstruction: People and Perspectives (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2008), xix–xxi.

[8] Richard B. Pierce, “Historical Interpretations of Reconstruction,” University of Notre Dame: OpenCourseware. (accessed October 26, 2013).

[9] Eric Foner and Joshua Brown, Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction (New York: Knopf, 2005), xxii.

[10] Jean Edward Smith, “A People’s History of Reconstruction,” Claremont Review of Books VI, no. 4 (Fall 2006). (accessed October 26, 2013).

[11] Fred Arthur Bailey, “E. Merton Coulter (1890-1981),” New Georgia Encyclopedia. (accessed October 18, 2013).

[12] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), xx.

[13] Vernon Burton, “[Review of] Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 91, no. 3 (1990): 218.

[14] Campbell and Fraser, Reconstruction: People and Perspectives, xx–xxi.

[15] B. Kelly, “[Review of ] A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South, from Slavery to the Great Migration,” Labor Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas 1, no. 3 (2004): 145.

[16] Ibid., 146.

[17] Hahn, A Nation Under Our Feet, 44.

[18] Kelly, “[Review of ] A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South, from Slavery to the Great Migration,” 146.