As Ira Berlin tells it, an American, born in Ethiopia, confronted a hostile audience of other black Americans. “I am African and I am an American citizen,” he said; “am I not African American?” The answer, “No, no, no, not you,” came from men and women who claimed the name as beneficiaries of a long history of struggle against slavery and oppression, which gave them an identity that they hesitated to extend to people who landed among them already enjoying the freedom so hard-won by their African-American forebears. Nevertheless the logic of the Ethiopian’s plea eventually prevailed. The newcomers assumed as their own the identity of their hosts and the history that gave it meaning.
That history has long been understood as the step-by-step progression that the late John Hope Franklin recounted in his 1947 study, From Slavery to Freedom. Ira Berlin’s scholarship has done much to recover the details of that progression, from the horrors of the foreign slave trade to the Emancipation Proclamation, and beyond that to the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. In his latest book Berlin shifts the historical focus to “the contrapuntal narrative” of African-Americans’ geographical movement and consolidation as a people-within-a-people in four great migrations to and inside America.
The Making of African America is the result of prodigious scholarship and synthesis in tracking down the ways that a people held themselves together as they were swept into bondage and out of it and driven from place to place. Berlin has earned the credentials for telling their story, for it rests on his earlier demonstration that slavery could not eradicate the capacities for self-preservation and self-expression that make human beings human. Previous historians claimed that slavery dehumanized the people trapped in it. Stanley Elkins argued in 1959 in Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life that slavery brainwashed its victims in a process comparable to the regime of the Nazi concentration camps. This argument was supported in 1982 by Orlando Patterson in Slavery and Social Death, a study of slavery throughout the world. Slavery, he maintained, was “social death” because it destroyed the family.
In Many Thousands Gone (1998), Berlin restored some of the human dimensions of slave life. Slavery could not impose the absolute subjection that the name implied or the laws demanded. Slavery was always a “negotiated relationship,” even when slave owners held most of the bargaining chips. Slaves knew that their master made his living from their work, which they could diminish by sabotaging equipment, subverting production quotas, or taking off. In Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation (1999), John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger confirmed Berlin’s findings by showing that most slaves who ran away did not run far but ran often enough to make the threat one of the factors that a slave owner had to weigh in calculating the cost-effectiveness of whatever methods he …