African American Borderlands in the Long 19th Century

AHA Session 214
Saturday, January 9, 2016: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Room 304 (Hilton Atlanta, Third Floor)
Barbara Krauthamer, University of Massachusetts Amherst
The Audience

Session Abstract

This panel examines African-American borderlands in the long nineteenth century. During this century, African-American lives were transformed by forced and willful migration and the cultivation of “geopolitical literacy" that spanned slavery and freedom. Taking up Henry Bibb’s antislavery activism in the U.S-Canada border region, the participation of children of former slaveowners and freedwomen in racial destinarian emigration movement, and the gradual emergence of black Los Angeles after the Mexican War, panelists explore the role of U.S. borderlands in African-American social movements, political imagination, historical narrative, and individual subjectivity.

Ikuko Asaka’s paper examines Henry Bibb’s circulatory movements and fluid subjective formation in the antebellum U.S.-Canada border region. By studying Bibb's movements, Asaka’s paper argues that Bibb not only saw mobility as a political physical act but turned it into expressions of belonging intertwined with gender, national, and colonial meanings. Furthermore, his non-linear movements signaled the nonlinear nature of his relationship with freedom and the state, a condition necessitated by abolitionist exigencies and facilitated by the U.S.-Canada border culture.

Shifting from northern to southern and southwestern borderlands in the post-emancipation era, Kendra Field’s paper explores the participation of children of former slaveowners and enslaved women in racial destinarian emigration movements in the post-emancipation era. This paper suggests that the westward migration of “mulatto” freedpeople constituted a telling response to the racial revolution that accompanied the demise of Reconstruction. At the same time, the growing impossibility of this increasingly visible population was a harbinger for the racialization of southern class structure that would ultimately shape the lives of all freedpeople after Reconstruction. While the communities these men and women joined within and beyond the American West were promoted, narrated, memorialized, and ultimately historicized as exclusively “all-black” and self-consciously “domestic,” such an image stands in contrast to the racial and national realities of the period.

Shifting to the far west, Marne Campbell’s paper takes up the mythology of nineteenth-century black Los Angeles. Historians of nineteenth-century Los Angeles have frequently underscored the accomplishments of black middle class men, and how conditions for black Angelenos diverged from those in the U.S. South. Campbell’s paper instead reveals
key erasures within this narrative, including the experiences of women and working-class black Angelenos. “Considering tropes of southern history while studying blacks in western history," Tiya Miles has written, "helps us to hold firmly in mind the abiding power of racialized social formations.” Together, these papers reveal the ambiguities of regionalized spaces and the continuities and disjunctures of African-American borderlands.

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