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How Black & White America Took Shape

The Granger Collection, New York
Members of the Ku Klux Klan parading in Washington, D.C., September 1926

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 used to control his captive labor force. Slaves could wrest concessions in the amount and kind of work required of them and also in the treatment of the women they recognized as wives, whether the laws did or not. Despite Patterson’s dismissal of major studies of slave families as an “academic absurdity,” those studies have convincingly demonstrated their strength and durability.

Berlin counts the formation of families as a principal way that slaves bound themselves together as a people. He also stresses the cultural transformations by which they defined themselves, especially the role of their music, “the evolution of shouts and hollers into spirituals, spirituals into gospel, and country blues into rhythm and blues,” as well as the invention of jazz, rock and roll, and hip hop. And he grounds his work solidly in the numbers of people involved, beginning with the 400,000 men and women enslaved in Africa for transport to America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

This was the first and most infamous of the four great migrations Berlin describes. In an earlier book he distinguished “slave societies,” where the economy rested on slave labor, from “societies with slaves,” where slavery existed only incidentally. The various African societies from which slavers plucked men and women for sale in America were societies with slaves. By contrast, Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas before 1861 were slave societies. Their laws were crafted so carefully to limit the lives of slaves that another modern scholar has dismissed their legal systems as no more than “a racket designed for the protection of whites.”

The men and women of the first migration who boarded ship from holding pens on the West African coast had been captured or abducted from a variety of societies with slaves, where “slavery was a porous, familial, and lineage-based system.” Once the overseas slave trade became systematized, slaves became captive commodities subjected to “systematic debasement” at the hands of profiteers bent on teaching them “the sacrosanctity of white skin.”

The first Africans in America had little in common other than their color and their subjection, no common language, history, or belief system. They had known themselves by local or tribal names, as, say, Angolans or Efiks, Kongos or Wolofs. Such names were sometimes carried over in American slave markets to indicate temperaments and aptitudes deemed serviceable or deleterious by prospective owners, as variants of the collective identity that white Americans imposed on them as “they became Africans in America.”

They had to invent themselves as African-Americans in the shared experience of slavery and in the “thicket of connections” that grew among people widely dispersed over the Southern landscape. It did not require a common language to recognize other victims and to form attachments in families of their own. The family, despite Orlando Patterson’s strictures, became an enduring bond among slaves, which persisted even when husband and wife were confined to different plantations. Traveling openly or surreptitiously to maintain their unions, they gained a consciousness of the many who shared their burdens and developed a sense of community. Inevitably, they also formed a deep attachment to the land on which they labored. By 1800 the majority of African-Americans had never seen Africa. The American land they worked was the only land they had ever known. “This sense of place was represented in every aspect of African American life.”

As the nineteenth century began, their masters inflicted a second migration on them. After tobacco had exhausted the soil of coastal plantations, peripatetic planters moved west and south to farm what became the Deep South’s principal crop, cotton. Sometimes an owner made the move himself, taking his slaves with him; but many simply gave up and sold their slaves to dealers, who marched them west in shackles. Between 1800 and 1860 this second forced migration, much larger than the first, carried more than a million African-Americans to Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

They could, if circumstances favored them, retain some of their ties, but families were more often sundered than kept intact. So they quickly reached out to one another wherever they were set down. African-Americans now spoke a single language, an accented version of their owners’, and they had also created a special version of their owners’ religion. Led by Methodist and Baptist evangelists, they had formed their own churches in the East, which they reconstituted in their new homes. The main handicap they now faced in sustaining their identity was continued uprooting. Their owners kept moving, driven by the restlessness and pursuit of gain that became a common trait of white Americans. “Planter mobility,” Berlin writes, “kept the slave community in flux, so that geographic mobility continued to be a feature of African American life.”

It was not a feature that African-Americans embraced when the Civil War brought emancipation. Reconstruction of the rebel states enabled former plantation slaves to gain small farms of their own. Although they were soon trapped in a sharecropping system that reduced them to a kind of peonage, they stuck to the land. By 1870, Berlin emphasizes, only 3 percent of freedmen had moved out of the former slave states, and the numbers did not change much before 1900. Only after that date, as C. Vann Woodward has shown, did the South turn to “Jim Crow” laws, making African-Americans second-class citizens, segregated from whites in public places. The triumph of Jim Crow coincided with the boll weevil’s assault on the cotton plant and the tractor’s replacement of hand labor in cultivating it. Together the boll weevil and the tractor began driving African-Americans off the land into Southern towns and cities where the race laws told them what their place was. By World War I, as opportunities opened in Northern cities, they began their third great migration.

This time it was voluntary, a huge movement of families and neighbors into Northern cities, taking their customs, their leadership, their churches, and their music with them. Six million had made the move by 1970, six times the number driven west as slaves in the second migration. They entered a world where “black men did not tip their hats to white men or scramble off the sidewalk to avoid a passing white woman,” where the “previously ubiquitous COLORED ONLY signs were nowhere to be found.” But this world did not offer them equality with whites. Labor unions shut them out, and for decades they were restricted to working as janitors, porters, waiters, manual laborers, and household servants, and confined as well by residential segregation. The dilapidated core districts of metropolitan areas became black ghettos, and in turn “inner city” became a white byword for criminality and disorder.

As better jobs opened up, during and after World War II, blacks gradually made their way up the labor ladder. Their numbers gave blacks political clout, strengthened by the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which accompanied the civil rights laws of that year, opened the country to millions on the basis of their nationality. As a result people of African descent landed in America from throughout the world. Exact numbers are not known, but by 2000, more than two million had arrived from Caribbean countries alone. Many came from Africa itself, including 140,000 from Nigeria. They settled mainly in large cities, particularly New York and Washington, D.C. While many kept in touch with their homelands, such connections “rarely lasted more than a generation.”

Their predecessors in the first migration had become Africans in America and then African-Americans. That name was imposed on the new arrivals of this fourth migration by the white majority. Some had come from countries where different degrees of blackness defined their status, but the “one-drop rule” prevailing in the United States made them all African-Americans. Despite episodes of hostility from older Americans who claimed the name, the political advantages of joint action brought them together and carried one of their descendants to the highest office in the land.

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