Land, Labor, and Violence: Black Life in the West

AHA Session 183
Labor and Working Class History Association 2
Saturday, January 8, 2022: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Grand Ballroom E (Sheraton New Orleans, 5th Floor)
Mekala S. Audain, The College of New Jersey
The Audience

Session Abstract

The myth of the American West performs historical violence against people of African descent by erasing their meaningful contributions. Offering four distinct examples of Black presence in the West from the mid-nineteenth through the early-twentieth centuries, this panel productively considers how Black men, women, and children literally and metaphorically navigated spaces hostile to their very existence. Starting with antebellum Texas, Ronald Davis and Brooks Winfree tackle vocabularies of erasure by analyzing how the presence and labor of enslaved individuals problematizes scholarship on cowboys and settler colonialism, respectively. Davis unpacks the myth of the cowboy to highlight how enslaved men, and occasionally women, performed skilled labor on plantations and ranches throughout antebellum Texas, contributing not only to the expansion of slavery in the state but also to the evolution of the American cattle industry. Building on this connection between enslaved labor, land, and (forceable) movement, Winfree insists that slavery must be included in conversations about settler colonialism. By offering the Texas borderlands as an emblematic case study, he centers the interactions between enslaved people and Indigenous Texans, as opposed to white settlers and Native inhabitants, to argue that a nuanced understanding of force should inform scholarship on settler colonialism in Indigenous spaces. Like Winfree, Nakia Parker also examines dynamics between Black and Native inhabitants, but she enters this conversation in postbellum Indian Territory. Investigating how Black criminality was constructed alongside anti-Black ideology, Parker reveals how Native claims to citizenship, identity, and belonging were predicated on the deliberate exclusion and condemnation of freedpeople in Indian Territory. Just as newspaper coverage of violent clashes between Black, Black-Native, and Native captivated audiences invested in criminalizing Blackness, so too did the press shape narratives of presumed Black incompetence related to oil-producing allotments owned by Black residents of Oklahoma. Lauren Henley uses a single young Black girl’s exceptionally lucrative allotment to examine the myriad rhetorical, legal, economic, and political maneuvers executed both on her behalf and at her expense. In so doing, Henley demonstrates how the intersection of Jim Crow laws and guardianship policies made the very existence of Sarah Rector a social conundrum for white society. Combined, these papers argue that it is not enough to simply include Black people in the history of the West; rather, Black people are essential to complicating American mythology and Western exceptionalism.
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