Monday, July 22, 2019

Nemata Blyden's "African Americans and Africa"

Nemata Blyden is associate professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University. She is the author of West Indians in West Africa, 1808–1880: The African Diaspora in Reverse.

Blyden applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, African Americans and Africa: A New History, and reported the following:
From page 99:
The new nation did not allow for easy acceptance of African Americans as equal and full citizens. By labeling blacks inferior white Americans could justify their shameful treatment of them. In the new century the expansion of democratic rights for whites accompanied a lessening of black rights. The swelling number of free blacks in the postrevolutionary period posed a major problem, particularly in the South. The United States essentially had a free black problem, as those newly emancipated faced more legal restrictions. The flexibility and mobility they had enjoyed in the seventeenth century was gone by the nineteenth. Although Northern blacks had a little more autonomy than their counterparts in the South, they still confronted restrictive legislation and racism. The federal government itself behaved in discriminatory ways, passing immigration and naturalization laws limiting citizenship to whites, and restricting blacks from enlisting in militias or serving as mail carriers, among other things. Individual states also imposed onerous legislation curbing the rights of free blacks. In the South free blacks, especially those who thrived, like the Jones family, exposed the myth of black incapacity. The many successes of free blacks belied Southern justifications that slavery was necessary because those of African descent needed the care and protection of whites to survive. The expanding number of successful blacks like Jehu Jones challenged the very idea of black inferiority.

Slaveholders feared a thriving free population might incite the enslaved to rebel or run away. Consequently, they assigned them to the inferior category in which slaves had been placed. With the growing number of them in the North at war’s end, Southern legislatures passed restrictive laws targeting the free blacks in their states, and curtailing the possibility of freedom for those still in slavery. There were very few free blacks in states like South Carolina and Georgia, although Charleston and Savannah had small populations of affluent blacks. Although laws in many Southern states recognized free blacks, their status was conditional, relying on recognition and validation from white citizens. Regardless of their class and status, all blacks faced restrictions and prohibitions. In most Southern states free blacks had no voting rights and were forced to prove their status. This required them to register with authorities, sometimes to...
I was not necessarily skeptical of this test, but was curious about how it would work for my book which is such a long sweep of history and a particular focus on African American engagement with Africa. I was, therefore, quite pleased with my results. Is it a good “browser’s shortcut?” I am not sure, but it does highlight a very important theme I address throughout the book – the discrimination African Americans have faced in the United States which has sometimes made (makes) them turn their gaze towards Africa. Page 99 (particularly the first paragraph) addresses the diminution of black rights in the United States during the nineteenth century. Increasing discrimination and marginalization of black Americans resulted in loss of rights, increasing racism, and even violence. The nineteenth century saw a hardening of slavery in the South, while blacks in northern states faced legal restrictions and economic competition from a growing immigrant population from Europe. What I have shown in previous chapters is how African descended women and men came to be in the United States, the many adjustments they had to make, how they coped with life in enslavement, the ways they tried to maintain a connection to Africa, and their growing claims on America and its ideals. The chapter from which this page comes, shows the frustration felt by African Americans as they tried to assert their right to citizenship, equality, and to find a place in American society. For some the increasing hostility was a sign that blacks would never be fully accepted as equals in the United States, and they looked to Africa as a possible solution. For many more African Americans, however, the solution was not emigration, but an opportunity to mobilize and fight for equality in the country of their birth, engage in activism against slavery, and assert their right to citizenship. Unfortunately, as subsequent chapters show African Americans continued to face rejection, relegation to the sidelines, and unequal opportunities which ensured that Africa would remain in the consciousness of many.
Learn more about African Americans and Africa at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue