The Race of Color: African Americans Participation in US Empire

AHA Session 316
Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 4
Sunday, January 8, 2017: 11:00 AM-12:30 PM
Room 403 (Colorado Convention Center, Meeting Room Level)
Juandrea Bates, Winona State University
Michele Mitchell, New York University

Session Abstract

In recent years there has been a renewed focus on African American participation in empire.  This scholarship has made stride in illuminating diaspora connections between people of African descent in the United States, Africa, and Haiti.  Yet we know much less about how African Americans thought about, traveled to, and worked in other sites of expanding US influence.  This panel builds upon the burgeoning field of scholarship on black mobility and labor in, as well as conceptualizations of, American empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and in so doing, highlights ways in which African Americans pursued imperial opportunities and understood themselves as connected to global communities of color.

Together our presentations will explore African American participation in imperial projects in Haiti and the Philippines.  Lauren Hammond’s paper examines the diplomatic influence of prominent African Americans in an expanding US role in Santo Domingo.   By focusing on Frederick Douglass’ trip to Santo Domino in the mid-nineteenth century, made at the behest of the government to determine whether the nation ought to be annexed by the United States, Hammond argues that Douglass viewed taking the islands as beneficial for both Dominicans and African Americans.  Amanda Nagel’s presentation ties together African American military history with the study of race in empire.  By scrutinizing the experiences of black soldiers in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War, Nagel demonstrates the ambivalence that African American soldiers felt about instituting systems of white supremacy in the islands, and argues that both black soldiers and Filipinos used the language of race and racial brotherhood to disrupt the colonizing project.  Finally, Sarah Steinbock-Pratt continues and deepens this focus on the Philippines, addressing the participation of black teachers in colonial education.  Her paper illuminates both the opportunities that African American civilizations sought in empire, as well as the extent to which black teachers complicated and challenged white notions of civilization and racial hierarchy.   Steinbock-Pratt argues that as African American teachers negotiated relationships with Filipinos that were often fraught with imperial politics, they used the idea of racial sympathy to present themselves as the most effective colonizers.

Collectively this panel highlights the extent of African American mobility into and through US Empire, linking together local and transnational histories of race and power.  African Americans eagerly sought positions and influence in colonized spaces, and saw in their participation in empire a chance for black Americans to achieve an economic and social status that was denied at home.  Even as they sought opportunities in specific sites of empire, however, black teachers, soldiers, and intellectuals traced mental paths across oceans and back home, linking together the spread of American influence and the African American freedom struggle.

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