Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North. (Reviews).
We have become accustomed to hearing W. E. B. Du Bois's refrain that the problem of the twentieth century would be the problem of the color line. We are even more familiar with the claim that the debate that defined black political and social life in the twentieth century was between Booker T. Washington's program of accommodation and Du Bois's assimilationist ideology. There is, certainly, much of value in these assertions, but in Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North Patrick Rael makes clear that these popular formulations are incomplete. They are incomplete, Rael argues, because they are bereft of proper historical grounding. Rael sets out to rectify this absence, and he does so with great success.
Rael's project is ambitious. He wants to strip away the labels with which we have become comfortable and shift the spotlight away from the iconic figures of black thought and activism. Rael barely lingers over the Washington-Du Bois debate, turning instead to the difficult work of locating the roots of the debate in abolitionist, Enlightenment, nationalist, and religious thought and rhetoric. We see rather quickly that what we have come to accept as the defining "black" debate was, in its origin, not at all about race, but about locating humankind's ability to master the forces of nature, society, or even its secular or religious essence. Rael's point here is profoundly important: From at least the 1780s to the early 1800s, white and black elites engaged in open debates about the meaning of the country and the public that constituted it. To be sure, these white and black intellectuals/elites often spoke to different audiences, but Rael emphasizes that blacks were proactively engaged in these debates. In fact, until slavery began to disappear from the Northern colonies, class anxieties crept into everyday life, and the convenience of racial thinking overwhelmed other modes of social analysis, black thinkers were not necessarily arguing their points in racialized terms. They were, Rael insists, staking claims for citizenship or offering other social commentary as rightful citizens and as Americans. These were not reactive ideas, germinating only in the wake of white racist ideology. ".... black protest thought," Rael argues, "drew upon the values and fundamental social presuppositions of a northern culture, which African American elites actively participated in constructing."
For the balance of the book, Rael provides a wealth of evidence, all closely read, to support this claim. Rael canvasses the literature of the black convention movement and antislavery celebrations; he examines the debates about religious practices and religiosity; and he carefully explores the meanings behind the heightened cultural value of respectable behavior and human character. In this respect, he joins scholars like Joanne Freeman (Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic) who are fundamentally reshaping how we think about the early national period of the United States. In a different way, Rael joins an earlier generation of critics, most clearly Ralph Ellison, in highlighting the absolute "Americanness" of black political thought and activism.
Even when black spokespersons issued a call for black nationalism--something seemingly at odds with Rael's thesis about blacks' fundamental Americanness--he asserts that this call needs to be understood as one of many concurrent calls for a new nationalist identity. Furthermore, this new black nationalism ought to be seen as a pragmatic manifestation of black elite intellectual activity. This was not the cultural and political nationalism of the 1960s that was articulated from the bottom up. In fact, the opposite was the case prior to the Civil War. Rael argues that, once race began to solidify as a means of social control, the black elite used this fact to its advantage, forming a rhetorical bond to lower-class blacks that served to authenticate a black elite space in the public sphere. This is another major component to Rael's larger argument: Black identity and protest thought was articulated by blacks in the public sphere. The black elite used any means at its disposal--newspaper columns and editorials, p arade speeches, the pulpit--to claim and then preserve a public space. For Rael, this act, whether self-serving or truly altruistic, demonstrates blacks' proactive engagement with debates about citizenship and the country. If, for the black elite, serving as racial leaders or spokespersons was the best means to claim a public presence and articulate blacks' contributions to American society, so be it.
Although my account has simplified a rich and complex argument, one can begin to see how the roots of the accommodation vs. assimilation argument can be traced back to a black elite trying to carve out a public space as American citizens. One can also glimpse the process by which an elite, in this case a black elite, made a deal whereby its attempt to co-opt a vehicle of oppression (race) and turn it into a means of securing a public presence only reified what the elite sought to destroy in the first place (racial discrimination). It is all too easy, of course, for contemporary readers to criticize the black spokespersons found in Rael's book for either their naivete or arrogance. But to his credit, Rael strives to understand the elite in the terms by which they lived their lives. He recognizes that these characters are far from perfect but points out the impossibility of living up to standards of behavior that were literally unimaginable for the time.
Patrick Rael wants to uncover the important, if occasionally flawed, role that black leaders played in forming an American identity during a period of profound social, political, and economic transition and anxiety. Furthermore, he wants to demonstrate how the desire to participate in this grand social experiment makes plain how deeply invested blacks were in the promise America represented and how "American" this investment was. On these accounts, Rael succeeds absolutely. Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North reframes how we understand the early national period and blacks' engagement with it. Much more than a mere contributionist history detailing the accomplishments or struggles of individuals previously lost to historians, Black Identity and Black Protest asks its readers to rethink some of the very premises that have, until now, defined freedom struggles and group identities in the twentieth century.
We are all that much richer for the questions that Patrick Rael asks.
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|Author:||Holloway, Jonathan S.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2003|
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