Black Like Whom?

In search of a shareable African-American history.

Ira Berlin begins this book by recounting a conversation he had several years ago with a small group of black radio technicians, most of them recent immigrants born in Africa or the Caribbean. He had just been interviewed on a local public radio station on the topic “Who freed the slaves?” Berlin had argued that enslaved Southerners played a significant role in their own liberation. He found that the technicians were “deeply interested” in the events leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863; yet he was troubled by the fact that they felt these events “had nothing to do with them. Simply put, it was not their history.”

In The Making of African America, Berlin aims to reformulate the grand arc of African-American history in a way that is true to the past and at the same time includes this newest generation of immigrants. He highlights the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, arguing that this piece of legislation was just as significant as the 1965 Voting Rights Act in its transformative effects on African America, and on all of American society. For the first time since 1790, when Congress barred the entry of nonwhite people into the United States, substantial numbers of Africans and persons of African descent were allowed to immigrate to this country. Since 1965, the number of black immigrants has become so large—greater even than the total number of Africans forcibly imported during the slave trade—that they account for one-quarter of the growth in the African-American population. In the early 21st century, fully 10 percent of all black Americans are either immigrants or the children of immigrants.

Berlin, who teaches at the University of Maryland, draws from his own award-winning research on the pre-1900 period and also makes a provocative foray into recent American history to suggest that this latest wave of immigration is the most recent in a series of four mass migrations that have shaped this country’s history. First came the Middle Passage, the forced removal of millions of people from the African continent from the 17th through the early 19th centuries. There followed the antebellum forced migration of enslaved men, women, and children from the Upper South and Atlantic coast into the western interior of the country. The 20th century saw a voluntary migration of black Southerners to the urban North beginning in the World War I era and the post-1965 voluntary immigration of Africans and persons of African descent to the United States. Black immigrants from all over the world, people with no legacy of enslavement or forced migration, are remaking American society today; at the same time, they recapitulate the struggles of previous generations of blacks who entered or moved around within the United States and had to make a life for themselves in a new home that might or might not have been of their own choosing.

Onto this new history Berlin overlays a “contrapuntal narrative” based on the interplay between what the scholar Paul Gilroy calls “routes and roots”—the tension between a peripatetic existence on the one hand and an attachment to home on the other. Berlin eschews a view of African-American history that stresses only forward movement, a gradual triumph over oppression through the generations. At the same time, he seeks to show that, despite progress punctuated by setbacks, African-American history “is, in the end, of one piece.” He makes an intriguing case for the idea that the two African-American voluntary migrations have in certain respects resembled their two involuntary predecessors. Each uprooting of a population leads to dramatic dislocations, yearnings for a home left behind, the welding of a collective from a variety of constituents—and the weathering of further upheaval.

Thus in the 18th century, newly arrived Africans found themselves cohabiting with U.S.-born blacks on slave plantations. Revolutionary ideals led to freedom for some blacks in the Upper South, but the subsequent expansion of cotton cultivation into the Old Southwest severed families and produced untold misery for others. The destruction of slavery in 1865 ushered in the era of American apartheid—the system of state-sponsored terrorism, segregation, and disfranchisement that remained largely intact until the mid-1960s. New job opportunities for blacks in the industrial, World War I-era North spurred migration out of the South, only to be reversed with the recession of the 1920s and the Great Depression of the 1930s. Recent migrants to the North clashed with “old settlers” who had lived there for generations. The landmark civil rights legislation of 1964-65 erased discriminatory laws, and the voluntary immigration of peoples of African descent quickened. Yet within a decade the emerging global economy was eroding those very jobs that black people had gained access to for the first time. Today, West Indian immigrants at times distance themselves from native-born African-Americans, emphasizing their nationality or ethnicity, not their “Africanness.”

Berlin’s new, more inclusive story of migrations of “multiple strands, nonlinear character, and unpredictable outcomes” is far more nuanced than the traditional “Whiggish” narrative of inexorable progress toward democracy and civil rights. At the same time, in part because it is so complex, this narrative may not offer the kind of shared history that is crucial to a shared identity among otherwise disparate peoples. Indeed, this book is a reminder of how fraught the forging of “African” and “African-American” identities has been—and will continue to be. For those recent immigrants who resist the notion of an overarching African-American identity based on either skin color or history, even—or maybe especially—a sweeping story of migratory experience may lack specific cohesive power in a global era marked by as widespread mobility as ours is.

In the United States, “racial” formulations are fluid and inconsistent; yet “black” is often shorthand, or code, for a person whose forebears were enslaved in the British North American colonies or the antebellum United States. Neither skin color nor African heritage is a necessary, critical marker of a single African-American identity. Certainly some immigrants of South Asian descent are darker-skinned than many native-born African-Americans; but conventional wisdom holds that members of the latter group are “black” and the former are not. “Studies of whiteness affirm that race remains a driving force in understanding American life,” Berlin writes, but perhaps it is mainly the prejudices of whites, and not the self-identity of blacks, that makes “race” today. Perhaps the new black immigrants relate more directly to the life stories of other new immigrants from, say, Southeast Asia or Latin America, than to the experiences of African-Americans whose families have lived in this country for generations.

Not surprisingly, Berlin ends with a discussion of Barack Obama, the son of a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas. Obama’s life story seems emblematic of the multiple themes of African-American immigration, migration, and identity. According to Berlin, Obama fits squarely squarely within this new narrative of African-American history by virtue of his “peripatetic childhood, and the discovery that he ‘needed a race’ as he mapped the multiple meanings of blackness between Jakarta and Nairobi until finding his own African American self on the South Side of Chicago.” Some black Americans initially questioned Obama’s claim to an “African-American” identity—even though he attended a black church and married a woman whose forebears had been enslaved—because he himself was not descended from American slaves. No doubt Obama derived at least some of his white support from this very fact—that his ancestors were not tainted by slavery. In the end, Obama’s election was embraced as proof that the country had finally achieved a “postracial society.”

Certainly the Obama presidency proves Berlin’s point that, if history is any guide, the most recent case of progress will be followed by dramatic setbacks and reversals. The Great Recession has eroded many of the hard-won gains among the black working and middle classes—immigrant and native-born alike—of the last half-century. Communities in New York, Detroit, Baltimore, and countless other American cities have suffered skyrocketing foreclosure rates, with no end in sight. The public-sector jobs that provided a comfortable existence for many African-American families are declining in the face of local, state, and federal cutbacks.

Once again, many black families face dispossession and dislocation. The question now is: Where can these families migrate now? Where can they go? It is possible that, as Berlin implies, out of this shared hardship among blacks of various nationalities a new form of African-American identity will emerge. But it seems equally possible that black Americans will come to recognize their common suffering with other Americans of different backgrounds and in the process forge a new identity—this one based on vulnerability to foreclosures and unemployment—rather than on African-American history. What will happen is likely to hinge on the perceptions of whites themselves—whether or not they can free themselves from their own “racial” history and see in their struggles a common bond with people of African descent, and people descended from slaves.