A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration.
This author has written an amazing book, one well deserving of the Pulitzer Prize. In a challenging, insightful, entertaining, and subtle study, Steven Hahn charts the scope of African American activism in the nineteenth century. He argues that slaves, in their everyday acts of resistance, laid the basis for political activity in post-Civil War America. The communities created, organizations founded, and experience gained were vital to the creation of the modern nation.
Slavery was foundational to black political life. Slaves forged kinship groups, informal communities, and religious networks that grew into proving grounds for later activism. As bondservants traversed the harsh terrain of slavery, they learned tremendous lessons in self-reliance and political negotiation. These skills gained traction during the Civil War when slaves launched a rebellion in the midst of the Confederate rebellion. Contrabands undermined the prevailing social order, slaves remaining behind made "a new world of freedom" on the plantations, and the enlistment of bondservants redefined civil and political society (82).
As the country lurched into the Reconstruction era, former slaves continued to push for their inalienable rights. African Americans ambitiously pursued political office with surprising success. They contributed to the chaos in the countryside and thus helped usher in Radical Reconstruction. Had former slaves accepted the harsh labor conditions in 1865-1866, Northern Radicals would have had more difficulty challenging presidential reconstruction. The Union League emerged from this activism; however, it also led to a backlash from the Ku Klux Klan. Hahn proves most effective in portraying resistance to the Klan, a struggle often lost in standard accounts of the era. The unreliability of the carpetbaggers and scalawags ultimately sabotaged black gains, even though biracial politics was not completely extinguished in 1877.
Hahn then provides a fascinating discussion of how African Americans continued to influence the society and culture of the Jim Crow South. The Readjusters and Colored Alliance were more influential than previously imagined, even as black migration out of the South continued in the 1890s. These factors combined to explain the surprising appeal of Marcus Garvey in the rural South. The Universal Negro Improvement Association had more chapters in the region than anywhere else in the country. Blacks, in essence, had been treated so badly for decades that Garvey's message clearly resonated.
This book is a difficult one to summarize because it is so nuanced, anecdotal, and comprehensive. The thorough research and clear prose make it simply a pleasure to read. Hahn's primary weakness is his expansive definition of political activity. Because he seeks to link the slave experience to post-emancipation activity, Hahn must be creative in his use of evidence. Slaves, by definition, were excluded from traditional political activity, so everyday activity became the stuff of politics. Hahn heavily relies on a class analysis, despite abundant evidence of interclass white solidarity. The author could do much more to explain white attitudes. Such criticisms are minor. Hahn has reoriented the landscape of American history--and no historian can afford to neglect this work.
Robert H. Gudmestad
University of Memphis