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.


Private Collection/Bridgeman Art Library

‘Musical instruments belonging to negro slaves’; nineteenth-century engraving by Raineri Vittorio

What, then, is the African America that Berlin’s four migrations created? Did the last migration, in effect, unmake it? Is the discovery of an African among one’s ancestors anything more now than a genealogical peculiarity? Since the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, the stated policy of the United States government has been to make that peculiarity irrelevant in law. Since 1954 the Supreme Court has made unconstitutional the treatment of blacks as equal but separate in American schools. If they must be equal but not separate in public life, how can there be an African America separate from the rest of America?

We all know the answer. Before he was elected, the black man who became president responded to a television reporter who wondered whether his race made any difference in public perceptions of him. “When I leave this interview,” he said, “and go out on the street and attempt to hail a taxi, there is no question who I am.” Anthropologists long ago discarded race as a meaningful category for differentiating the endless physical variety that human beings present. But if race is gone from science, it survives in the wider culture as racism. Racism once prevailed among the great majority of whites and still does among enough people to justify Barack Obama’s expectation of being turned away by a cab driver. As a force in human relations, racism remains strong enough to give African-Americans good reasons to stick together; and in fact considerable numbers still live in ghettos that are effectively segregated.

Admittedly, in history it is difficult to calculate the role of exclusion from a larger group as a force in bringing the outcasts together. But it can be argued that English contempt for the Irish helped to forge Irish national identity. And the withholding of rights that Americans claimed as Englishmen undoubtedly brought them together in their Declaration of Independence and the revolution that followed it. Slaves welcomed the Declaration as an affirmation of equality that should release them from bondage. Recognizing the document’s implications posed a dilemma for the slaveholding leaders of the Revolution. When they joined in framing the United States Constitution, they maintained a deliberate silence about slavery while rigging the numerical formula that was to determine representation in the national government. Thomas Jefferson, though affirming that slaves deserved the rights promised in his Declaration, wanted them sent back to Africa. Even Lincoln’s proclamation of 1863, freeing slaves in the rebellious states, was not framed to confer equality. As an Illinois politician Lincoln affirmed that “I am not nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.” The racism that excluded blacks from social and political equality told them that they were a separate people even as they were affirming the positive values, attitudes, and connections that Berlin finds in their making of African America.

The arrival of a different sort of African-American in Berlin’s fourth migration has changed the meaning of the term. If the new arrivals have not ended racism, they have somehow weakened it, perhaps by not expecting to encounter it. They may also have helped to expand the meaning of the word “American,” an expansion that Nell Irvin Painter examines.

As a counterpoint to Berlin’s book, Painter’s The History of White People could have been called The Making of White America, for most of it is devoted to the white Americans who started the United States in 1776 and experienced successive “enlargements” of white immigrants. The original settlers were virtually all from England or Europe, and Painter precedes her account of them with a learned survey of the idea of whiteness in European thought, literature, and aesthetics. Europeans who engaged in studies of “race” or “type” had distinguished the different degrees of whiteness—readily equated with beauty and mental endowment—awarding the highest marks to the ancient Greeks as portrayed in marble statuary and to a little-known people, the Caucasians, who lived near the Black Sea. Exemplified as nubile females carried off into slavery, Caucasians came to be renowned for their beauty, which inspired European artists. In the self-flattery that has accompanied all attempts to distinguish whites from darker people, and superior whites from less impressive ones, “Caucasian” was adopted as a synonym for “white.”

Proceeding to the Americans, Painter ignores their colonial past and fixes on the mixture of people already here when the United States achieved its freedom. These were the people celebrated by Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur in 1782 as the forerunners of “a new race whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.” These are the white Americans whom Painter follows in their successive “enlargements” by white immigrants, who persuaded themselves and their hosts that they had become Americans. Although she does not specify citizenship or the right to vote as an original qualification of American whiteness, the first enlargement she recognizes was the adoption of universal (i.e., white male) suffrage in most American states in the first half of the nineteenth century. These Americans, like the colonists, were mainly of European and British descent. Among them a certain distinction attached to “the English race,” also known as “the Anglo-Saxon race.” The word “race” had not yet acquired the fixed precision of meaning that scientists and would-be scientists attached to it.

“Race” could be used simply as a synonym for “nation,” but it also implied something older and grander, as it did for Ralph Waldo Emerson. The foremost American man of letters, Emerson celebrated the virility and bodily strength (not exemplified in his own sickly person) inherited by Americans from their English and Norse predecessors. While at times conceding that Americans were a blend of many nations, he held that they sprang from the ancient Saxons. As Painter puts it, the Emersonian American “was the same as the Englishman, who was the same as the Saxon and the Norseman.” Indeed, Americans might actually be more English than the English, who were losing their Saxon virility in the dark Satanic mills lamented by William Blake. If the sage of Concord appears to hold “crabbed views of American ancestry,” Painter credits him with rejecting most of “the toxic racial thinking of his time.”

Evidence, and lots of it, was the obsession of the “widely respected American scholars” who formed the “American school of anthropology” and whose story is told by William Stanton in The Leopard’s Spots (1982). They focused on physical remains, skulls in particular, to discern the origins and characteristics of the races inhabiting the globe. Like the country doctor who covets the cranium of Sherlock Holmes, these were individuals trained in medicine who passionately believed in the power of measurement. This they documented in tomes with titles like Crania Americana (1839), Crania Aegyptiaca (1844), and Types of Mankind (1854). Modern scholars would view these treatises as pitiable in their lack of scientific rigor and harmful in their pretended social applicability. But Samuel George Morton and Josiah Nott drew respectful attention from the likes of Louis Agassiz, the famed Harvard zoologist.

A South Carolinian, Nott promoted the degraded character of blacks and the separate origins of the races at a time when proslavery apologists were keen to have the backing of science. Since the races of America were not only separate but also unequal, Nott insisted that they must be kept from propagating with one another, lest black and white doom themselves to extinction. As Mary Boykin Chesnut wrote in her diary, white slave-owners were having so many children and grandchildren by female slaves that any planter’s wife could identify the mixed-race children abounding in her neighbors’ families. Where Mrs. Chesnut noted scandalous fecundity, the purblind Josiah Nott saw the threat of both races dying off. On the one hand, the American School is now little more than a sidebar in the history of exploded scientific theories; on the other, its influence lived on in the mania for “the cephalic index” and other forms of racial classification.

Though he was a staunch antislavery man, Emerson did not wish to see Saxon traits diluted by any admixture, particularly by non-Saxon immigrants, whom he dismissed as so much “guano.” They began arriving in the two decades before the Civil War, several million Irish and Germans. One reaction to their numbers and feared influence was the Know Nothing party, which opposed immigration and called for the exclusion of the foreign-born from political office. The Know Nothings expired with the Civil War, but the Irish and Germans continued to be social outsiders until the last years of the nineteenth century when a new wave of immigrants, originating in Italy and Eastern Europe, arrived to raise anxieties about the purity of “the American.” Having settled in, and looking more American than the newcomers, the Germans and Irish became, Painter writes, “the second enlargement of American whiteness to become constituent parts of the American.”

It took World War II and most of the twentieth century for Slavic and Italian immigrants to be accepted in a third enlargement of whiteness. By then a generation of anthropologists, led by Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict, had discarded race, Saxon or any other, as a meaningful or even possible way of classifying people. The measurement of skulls, which clogged museum shelves, as an objective mode of distinguishing races became meaningless when Boas demonstrated in 1912, with tables of measurement taken from immigrant subjects, that the shape and size of a child’s skull depended on the length of time the mother had resided in the United States. This was nothing less than a “bombshell.” Hereditarian dogmas of race could no longer be pinned to the immutability of head shape. Nonetheless, belief in fixed hereditary characteristics, for which the term “race” was a shorthand, continued to affect popular belief and drive public policy.

By then it was not immigration alone that posed dangers to the great and dominant race enthroned by Crèvecoeur. Respectable scholars wrote exposés of “degenerate” families, otherwise classified as white, that were spawning outlaws and imbeciles. These detrimental characteristics could allegedly be traced back to some of the first colonists, who were no good when they arrived, and whose alarmingly fertile offspring remained depraved through succeeding centuries. Illiterate, violent, promiscuous, and thievish, they were burdens to the state and to the respectable, but sadly less prolific, classes of whites.

Academics and scientists published somber monographs describing clans known as the Jukes and the Kallikaks, symbols of what happened when parasites bred freely. Invoking the “science” of eugenics, progressive social reformers offered a solution—one now identified with Nazi Germany—in forced sterilization of the degenerate. When several states, beginning with Indiana in 1907, passed laws authorizing involuntary sterilization of persons deemed unfit or dangerous, the United States Supreme Court supported their constitutionality. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously gave it as his opinion that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Between 1907 and 1956, over 60,000 Americans were sterilized.

The same concern with hereditary defects prompted the development of intelligence tests as a way of sorting people out and limiting the influx of undesirables. Popular books and scholarly journals bewailed the growing predominance of mentally deficient and otherwise flawed newcomers over older, genetically superior Americans, as in the wildly popular screed The Passing of the Great Race (1916). The Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 was enacted in order to beat back the tsunami, limiting further immigration to 2 percent of the number of people of different nationalities enumerated in the United States Census of 1890, a restriction that remained in effect until 1965.

By the time Congress began restricting immigration, American popular culture, as expressed in radio, movies, magazines, and ultimately in television, had become the arbiter of what “the American” was. In Painter’s chapter “The Third Enlargement of American Whiteness,” she sketches a general recognition of every kind of diversity in celebrities and movements that arose during the New Deal, World War II, and the prosperity of postwar America. There was continuity with previous enlargements in the heroic images of Anglo-Saxon types that still prevailed in the mass media. The willingness of Italians, Jews, and Eastern Europeans to change their names to something more Nordic, as for example when Solomon Israel Regenstreif became Johnny Gates, exemplifies the continuing glamour of Anglo-Saxonism. Tipping its hat to American preferences, the Communist Party issued posters and pamphlet covers depicting “the American worker” as a tall, handsomely built Nordic figure. But the Nordic stereotype was already losing ground in America when it became the ballyhooed ideal of Hitler’s Germany. In 1938 the United States Department of the Interior sponsored a radio program called Americans All Immigrants All.

By the twenty-first century any priority granted one type of white over another had disappeared. The “white people,” whose history this purports to be, became enlarged almost beyond recognition. Moreover, athletes and celebrities who were visibly not white, like Bill Cosby, Tiger Woods (calling himself “Cablinasian”), and Oprah Winfrey, increasingly starred on television and in movies, while polls of individuals voted as the most respected public figures gave no edge to Nordic types. Scientists have pronounced, once again, that “race is a social concept, not a scientific one.” Painter concludes that “the American is undergoing a fourth great enlargement,” in which whiteness as such counts for less than income, influence, and celebrity. And even the difference between black and white is disappearing into a multitude of in-between shades. “Nonetheless,” Painter emphasizes, “poverty in a dark skin endures as the opposite of whiteness, driven by an age-old social yearning to characterize the poor as permanently other and inherently inferior.”

Painter has given us an attractively linear account of how the numbers of white Americans grew in distinct “enlargements.” But we have to ask who and what was enlarged. In the first enlargement it was the right to vote that counted, clearly defined in acts of legislation. The people in her first group had already recognized themselves as Americans, having fought two wars to vindicate this identity. Subsequent enlargements somehow made Americans out of immigrants who could not gain the title simply by coming here and wishing for it. They could be here for years, even generations, before their wishes were fulfilled in an enlargement.

It is tempting to see Painter’s successive enlargements as stages in the making of white America, comparable to the successive migrations that Ira Berlin marks in the making of black America. But Painter’s enlargements, after the first one, were the silent initiation of immigrants into a new nationality without any visible rites of passage. This is not to say the enlargements did not occur, but that they took place in people’s emotions and minds without leaving a record. Painter traces them in the words of various savants and pundits, but they are actually the construction of a gifted historian, giving shape to a shapeless process by which white Americans maintained their national identity while encompassing a continuous flood of strangers. Emerson might have considered Painter’s enlargements to be overwhelming his America, but Crèvecoeur might have called them the fulfillment of his.

This Issue

April 8, 2010