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Stephen Hahn's A Nation Under Our Feet is one of the most important books on American history published in the twenty-first century. The book received mainstream acclaim, and won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for its author, a professor of American History at the University of Pennsylvania. It remains a staple in graduate and upper-level seminars. Hahn's argument, broadly put, is that from the antebellum period to well into the twentieth century, African Americans developed and sustained a political culture. This political tradition reached back not just to Reconstruction, when freedmen became directly involved in politics, but under slavery itself. Hahn thus broadens the definition of political activity to challenge what he characterizes as the prevailing interpretation of African-American political history: that "black politics was constructed and destroyed chiefly during Reconstruction" and was only reborn in the twentieth century.
Hahn begins by examining political behaviors under slavery itself. While acknowledging the nearly universal tendency of slavery to "undermine the solidarities of the enslaved," he emphasizes the slaves' "struggle to form relations among themselves" as an essentially political act. Many enslaved people, for example, negotiated better working conditions, wages, and free time for themselves through what Hahn calls "reciprocal understandings" between masters. These understandings were based fundamentally on the importance of unfree labor to the South's economy and that of individual plantations. Hahn also emphasizes the importance of slave religious organizations, networks of communication between plantations, and rumors of insurrections as examples of the political agency of enslaved people.
Hahn proceeds to demonstrate how black men and women asserted their political identity in the crucible of the Civil War. Hundreds of thousands of enslaved people took advantage of the conflict to assert their freedom, "voting with their feet" by leaving their plantations and flocking to Union lines. The enlistment of black troops into the Union army "carried forward" a revolution that was already in motion with the outbreak of war. Military service, moreover, helped to provide a "basic political education" for many African-Americans, who understood the war as inherently political in ways that many white Northern soldiers did not. In participating in the war, Hahn argues, they made a "significant contribution to the fashioning of a new foundation for national identity."
Following the war, African-Americans "claimed access" to public political spheres in ways that were novel, but still built upon the foundations of political activity fashioned before and during the war. Urban workers, churches, and the army remained central to black political experience, and, as during the war, blacks claimed political identity through migration, pouring into cities in large numbers. Of course, black political access was fiercely, and in many ways successfully, contested by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, but Hahn shows that blacks did not meekly surrender in the face of Klan violence. They formed their own paramilitary organizations, particularly black veterans, and attempted to resist Klan violence.
In the aftermath of Reconstruction's collapse, blacks sought other outlets for political expression and empowerment. The church remained an important center for African-American political activity, as did many of the private clubs, including women's organizations, that had emerged during Reconstruction. Many also followed the example of blacks during the Civil War, organizing to migrate to such locations ranging from Kansas to Liberia. Opposition to migration, in fact, is cited by Hahn as a part of the debate between "accomodationists" and others who were less sanguine about black political prospects in the Jim Crow South. Blacks also sought biracial political alliances, most notably with Populists. These "Fusionist" arrangements were often met with extreme violence and racist appeals on the part of establishment white politicians.
Migration, shown by Hahn to be a continuity in black political experience, was an important form of expression in the twentieth century, both during the "Great Migration" that accompanied the First World War and such organizations as the Universal Negro Improvement Association led by Marcus Garvey. Rooted in older forms of political expression, Garvey's movement was a "thoroughfare" to the black nationalism of the later twentieth century. The important point, according to Hahn, is that Garvey's movement, and those that followed, had "genealogies" that "extend deep into the history of slavery and early emancipation." As noted above, this is the thesis of the book, and one which Hahn illustrates throughout.
Source: Steven Hahn, A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South From Slavery to the Great Migration (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004).
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