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Slave Narratives  

John Ernest

Slave narratives emerged in the 18th century to testify to the inhumanity of the practice of slavery. Often autobiographical accounts, but sometimes written by others or dictated to an amanuensis who took dictation, these accounts were celebrated in the United States as a powerful new genre, and they became associated primarily with slavery in the United States. Published both before and after the abolition of slavery, the narratives were never devoted solely to the abolition of slavery. Rather, they were attempts to represent the experiences, and argue for the authority, of those who experienced first-hand the ideological contradictions and the racial oppression fundamental to the maintenance of the system of slavery. These were stories deeply relevant long after the legal end of slavery—but the slave narratives were for many years either overlooked or decidedly dismissed as reliable historical sources, and they were not recognized as valuable literary documents for even longer. Eventually, historians and literary scholars alike began to embrace this genre of writing and recognized as well that it was a genre defined less by form than by purpose. Although often associated with book-length autobiographies by such prominent figures as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, or Booker T. Washington, the genre of slave narratives has come to include virtually any testimony of the enslaved, related in whatever form. What has come to matter, in the end, is precisely the authority of the enslaved that early writers struggled to establish.

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Race and the Origins of Plantation Slavery  

Justin Roberts

“Twenty and odd” Africans arrived in Virginia aboard a Dutch vessel in 1619 shortly after permanent colonization of the English Americas began. There has been significant academic debate about whether the enslavement of peoples of African descent in England’s early 17th-century colonies was an inevitable or “unthinking decision” and about the nature and degree of anti-black racism during the 17th century. The legal and social status of African peoples was more flexible at first in the English colonies than it later became. Some Africans managed to escape permanent enslavement and a few Africans, such as Anthony Johnson, even owned servants of their own. There was no legal basis for enslavement in the British Americas for the first several decades of settlement and slave and servant codes emerged only gradually. Labor systems operated by custom rather than through any legal mechanisms of coercion. Most workers in the Americas experienced degrees of coercion. In the earliest years of plantation production, peoples from Africa, Europe, and the Americas often toiled alongside each other in the fields. Large numbers of Native Americans were captured and forced to work on plantations in the English Americas and many whites worked in agricultural fields as indentured and convict laborers. There were a wide variety of different kinds of coerced labor beyond enslavement in the 17th century and ideas about racial difference had yet to become as determinative as they would later be. As the staple crop plantation system matured and became entrenched on the North American mainland in the late 17th and early 18th centuries and planters required a large and regular supply of slaves, African laborers became synonymous with large-scale plantation production. The permeable boundaries between slavery and freedom disappeared, dehumanizing racism became more entrenched and U.S.-based planters developed slave codes premised on racial distinctions and legal mechanisms of coercion that were modeled on Caribbean precedents.

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Muslims in America from the European Colonial Period to the Present  

Kambiz GhaneaBassiri

The history of Muslims in America dates back to the transatlantic mercantile interactions between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Upon its arrival, Islam became entrenched in American discourses on race and civilization because literate and noble African Muslims, brought to America as slaves, had problematized popular stereotypes of Muslims and black Africans. Furthermore, these enslaved Muslims had to re-evaluate and reconfigure their beliefs and practices to form new communal relations and to make sense of their lives in America. At the turn of the 20th century, as Muslim immigrants began arriving in the United States from the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and South Asia, they had to establish themselves in an America in which the white race, Protestantism, and progress were conflated to define a triumphalist American national identity, one that allowed varying levels of inclusion for Muslims based on their ethnic, racial, and national backgrounds. The enormous bloodshed and destruction experienced during World War I ushered in a crisis of confidence in the ideals of the European Enlightenment, as well as in white, Protestant nationalism. It opened up avenues for alternative expressions of progress, which allowed Muslims, along with other nonwhite, non-Christian communities, to engage in political and social organization. Among these organizations were a number of black religious movements that used Islamic beliefs, rites, and symbols to define a black Muslim national identity. World War II further shifted America, away from the religious competition that had earlier defined the nation’s identity and toward a “civil religion” of American democratic values and political institutions. Although this inclusive rhetoric was received differently along racial and ethnic lines, there was an overall appeal for greater visibility for Muslims in America. After World War II, increased commercial and diplomatic relations between the United States and Muslim-majority countries put American Muslims in a position, not only to relate Islam and America in their own lives but also to mediate between the varying interests of Muslim-majority countries and the United States. Following the civil rights legislation of the 1950s and 1960s and the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, Muslim activists, many of whom had been politicized by anticolonial movements abroad, established new Islamic institutions. Eventually, a window was opened between the US government and American Muslim activists, who found a common enemy in communism following the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Since the late 1960s, the number of Muslims in the United States has grown significantly. Today, Muslims are estimated to constitute a little more than 1 percent of the US population. However, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of the United States as the sole superpower in the world, the United States has come into military conflict with Muslim-majority countries and has been the target of attacks by militant Muslim organizations. This has led to the cultivation of the binaries of “Islam and the West” and of “good” Islam and “bad” Islam, which have contributed to the racialization of American Muslims. It has also interpolated them into a reality external to their history and lived experiences as Muslims and Americans.

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African American Radio  

Teisha Dupree-Wilson

Since its debut in the 1920s, African American radio has remained a permanent fixture in American popular culture. In the early years of radio, networks began to broadcast limited radio programming dedicated to showcasing “black” characters. Although these broadcasts were partially geared toward the black community, almost all of the featured performers were white actors who caricatured black culture and African American speech. In response to the negative black imagery presented in early radio, African American broadcasters sought to counter this problematic representation with programming produced and performed by black entertainers, who evoked cultural pride for the black community. The black community’s commitment to positively transforming African American presence in radio, led to a continuous evolution of this important medium. Such an evolution included the presentation and celebration of black entertainment though music and talk radio, the rise of “black-appeal” radio stations, which supported causes related to African American civil rights and cultural pride, the exposure of African American music to interracial audiences, and the emergence of African American disc jockeys as cultural heroes and community leaders. Significantly, African American radio’s transformation produced an increase in black female broadcasters and African American radio station owners.

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Repressive Legislation: Slave Codes, Northern Black Laws, and Southern Black Codes  

Stephen Middleton

Beginning in the 1630s, colonial assemblies in English America and later the new United States used legislation and constitutions to enslave Africans and deny free blacks civil rights, including free movement, freedom of marriage, freedom of occupation and, of course, citizenship and the vote. Across the next two centuries, blacks and a minority of whites critiqued the oppressive racialist system. Blacks employed varied tactics to challenge their enslavement, from running away to inciting revolts. Others used fiery rhetoric and printed tracts. In the 1760s, when whites began to search for political and philosophical arguments to challenge what they perceived as political oppression from London, they labeled their experience as “slavery.” The colonists also developed compelling arguments that gave some of them the insight that enslaving Africans was as wrong as what they called British oppression. The Massachusetts lawyer James Otis wiped the mirror clean in The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, stating “The colonists, black and white . . . are free-born British subjects . . . entitled to all the essential civil rights.” The Declaration of Independence polished the stained mirror by asserting, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” However, the Constitution of the United States negated these gains by offering federal protection for slavery; it was a covenant with death, as abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison later asserted. After the Revolution, many states passed black laws to deprive blacks of the same rights as whites. Blacks commonly could not vote, testify in court against a white, or serve on juries. States barred black children from public schools. The Civil War offered the promise of equality with whites, but when the war ended, many southern states immediately passed black codes to deny blacks the gains won in emancipation.

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Old and New Directions in the History of Lynching  

John Giggie and Emma Jackson Pepperman

Professional studies of lynching and its tragic history, especially its unique American character, depth, and dynamics, evolved in critically important ways from the pioneering scholarship of W. E. B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells in the 1890s and 1900s across the 20th century and into the 21st century, their different stages introducing fresh categories of analysis amidst moments of dramatic civil rights protests. The first stage was heralded by pioneering research by African American intellectuals, such as Du Bois and Wells, and growing black demands for an end to discrimination in the late 19th century. Joining them in the early 20th century was a small group of social scientists whose case studies of lynching illuminated race relations in local communities or, from a very different vantage, saw them as symptoms of the violence so common in American society. The push to end racial and gender segregation and the passage of civil rights laws in the 1960s and 1970s encouraged historians to review lynchings from new perspectives, including gender, sexuality, religion, memory, and black community formation and resistance, stressing their centrality to modern southern history. The late 20th century saw a comparative turn. Historians evaluated lynching across America to identify common patterns of racial subjugation, but also to see how it was used to punish a wide range of Americans, including Asian Americans, Mexican Americans, and Native Americans. By 2000, the field shifted again, this time toward memorialization and community remembrance. Scholars and lawyers recalculated the total number of lynchings in America and found a large number of unrecorded killings, asked why so little was known about them, and created memorials to the victims. They demanded, too, that the causes and long-term consequences of the nation’s history of racial violence be discussed openly and taught in public schools. This effort is of particular resonance in 2020 as America confronts rising protests over a culture of mass incarceration and police brutality that disproportionately affects men and women of color. Indeed, the historical study of lynching has never been so vital as it is in the early 21st century.

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Black Soldiers in World War II America  

Robert F. Jefferson

The history of the African American military experience in World War II tends to revolve around two central questions: How did World War II and American racism shape the black experience in the American military? And how did black GIs reshape the parameters of their wartime experiences? From the mid-1920s through the Great Depression years of the 1930s, military planners evaluated the performance of black soldiers in World War I while trying to ascertain their presence in future wars. However, quite often their discussions about African American servicemen in the military establishment were deeply moored in the traditions, customs, and practices of American racism, racist stereotypes, and innuendo. Simultaneously, African American leaders and their allies waged a relentless battle to secure the future presence of the uniformed men and women who would serve in the nation’s military. Through their exercise of voting rights, threats of protest demonstration, litigation, and White House lobbying from 1939 through 1942, civil rights advocates and their affiliates managed to obtain some minor concessions from the military establishment. But the military’s stubborn adherence to a policy barring black and white soldiers from serving in the same units continued through the rest of the war. Between 1943 and 1945, black GIs faced white officer hostility, civilian antagonism, and military police brutality while undergoing military training throughout the country. Similarly, African American servicewomen faced systemic racism and sexism in the military during the period. Throughout various stages of the American war effort, black civil rights groups, the press, and their allies mounted the opening salvoes in the battle to protect and defend the wellbeing of black soldiers in uniform. While serving on the battlefields of World War II, fighting African American GIs became foot soldiers in the wider struggles against tyranny abroad. After returning home in 1945, black World War II-era activists such as Daisy Lampkin and Ruby Hurley, and ex-servicemen and women, laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement.

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Black Women and Beauty Culture in 20th-Century America  

Maxine Leeds Craig

Black beauty culture developed in the context of widespread disparagement of black men and women in images produced by whites, and black women’s exclusion from mainstream cultural institutions, such as beauty contests, which defined beauty standards on a national scale. Though mainstream media rarely represented black women as beautiful, black women’s beauty was valued within black communities. Moreover many black women used cosmetics, hair products and styling, and clothing to meet their communities’ standards for feminine appearance. At the beginning of the 20th century, the black press, which included newspapers, general magazines, and women’s magazines, showcased the beauty of black women. As early as the 1890s, black communities organized beauty contests that celebrated black women’s beauty and served as fora for debating definitions of black beauty. Still, generally, but not always, the black press and black women’s beauty pageants favored women with lighter skin tones, and many cosmetics firms that marketed to black women sold skin lighteners. The favoring of light skin was nonetheless debated and contested within black communities, especially during periods of heightened black political activism. In the 1910s and 1920s and later in the 1960s and 1970s, social movements fostered critiques of black aesthetics and beauty practices deemed Eurocentric. One focus of criticism was the widespread black practice of hair straightening—a critique that has produced an enduring association between hairstyles perceived as natural and racial pride. In the last decades of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, African migration and the transnational dissemination of information via the internet contributed to a creative proliferation of African American hairstyles. While such styles display hair textures associated with African American hair, and are celebrated as natural hairstyles, they generally require the use of hair products and may incorporate synthetic hair extensions. Beauty culture provided an important vehicle for African American entrepreneurship at a time when racial discrimination barred black women from other opportunities and most national cosmetics companies ignored black women. Black women’s beauty-culture business activities included beauticians who provided hair care in home settings and the extremely successful nationwide and international brand of hair- and skin-care products developed in the first two decades of the 20th century by Madam C. J. Walker. Hair-care shops provided important places for sharing information and community organizing. By the end of the 20th century, a few black-owned hair-care and cosmetics companies achieved broad markets and substantial profitability, but most declined or disappeared as they faced increased competition from or were purchased by larger white-owned corporations.

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Religion in African American History  

Judith Weisenfeld

Dynamic and creative exchanges among different religions, including indigenous traditions, Protestant and Catholic Christianity, and Islam, all with developing theologies and institutions, fostered substantial collective religious and cultural identities within African American communities in the United States. The New World enslavement of diverse African peoples and the cultural encounter with Europeans and Native Americans produced distinctive religious perspectives that aided individuals and communities in persevering under the dehumanization of slavery and oppression. As African Americans embraced Christianity beginning in the 18th century, especially after 1770, they gathered in independent church communities and created larger denominational structures such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and the National Baptist Convention. These churches and denominations became significant arenas for spiritual support, educational opportunity, economic development, and political activism. Black religious institutions served as contexts in which African Americans made meaning of the experience of enslavement, interpreted their relationship to Africa, and charted a vision for a collective future. The early 20th century saw the emergence of new religious opportunities as increasing numbers of African Americans turned to Holiness and Pentecostal churches, drawn by the focus on baptism in the Holy Spirit and enthusiastic worship that sometimes involved speaking in tongues. The Great Migration of southern blacks to southern and northern cities fostered the development of a variety of religious options outside of Christianity. Groups such as the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam, whose leaders taught that Islam was the true religion of people of African descent, and congregations of Ethiopian Hebrews promoting Judaism as the heritage of black people, were founded in this period. Early-20th-century African American religion was also marked by significant cultural developments as ministers, musicians, actors, and other performers turned to new media, such as radio, records, and film, to contribute to religious life. In the post–World War II era, religious contexts supported the emergence of the modern Civil Rights movement. Black religious leaders emerged as prominent spokespeople for the cause and others as vocal critics of the goal of racial integration, as in the case of the Nation of Islam and religious advocates of Black Power. The second half of the 20th century and the early 21st-first century saw new religious diversity as a result of immigration and cultural transformations within African American Christianity with the rise of megachurches and televangelism.

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The Underground Railroad  

Diane Miller

Africans and their descendants enslaved in the western hemisphere resisted their status in several ways. One of the most consequential methods was self-liberation. While many date the Underground Railroad as starting in the 1830s, when railroad terminology became common, enslaved people began escaping from the earliest colonial period. Allies assisted in journeys to freedom, but the Underground Railroad is centered around the enslaved people who resisted their status and asserted their humanity. Fugitives exhibited creativity, determination, courage, and fortitude in their bids for freedom. Together with their allies—white, Black, and Native American—they represented a grassroots resistance movement in which people united across racial, gender, religious, and class lines in hopes of promoting social change. While some participation was serendipitous and fleeting, the Underground Railroad operated through local and regional networks built on trusted circles of extended families and faith communities. These networks ebbed and flowed over time and space. At its root, the Underground Railroad was both a migration story and a resistance movement. African Americans were key participants in this work as self-liberators and as operators helping others to freedom. Their quest for freedom extended to all parts of what became the United States and internationally to Canada, Mexico, Caribbean nations, and beyond.

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Religion and Race in America  

Emily Suzanne Clark

Religion and race provide rich categories of analysis for American history. Neither category is stable. They change, shift, and develop in light of historical and cultural contexts. Religion has played a vital role in the construction, deconstruction, and transgression of racial identities and boundaries. Race is a social concept and a means of classifying people. The “natural” and “inherent” differences between races are human constructs, social taxonomies created by cultures. In American history, the construction of racial identities and racial differences begins with the initial encounters between Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans. Access to and use of religious and political power has shaped how race has been conceived in American history. Racial categories and religious affiliations influenced how groups regarded each other throughout American history, with developments in the colonial period offering prime examples. Enslavement of Africans and their descendants, as well as conquered Native Americans, displayed the power of white Protestants. Even 19th-century American anti-Catholicism and anti-Mormonism intersected racial identifications. At the same time, just as religion has supported racial domination in American history, it also has inspired calls for self-determination among racial minorities, most notably in the 20th century. With the long shadow of slavery, the power of white supremacy, the emphasis on Native sovereignty, and the civil rights movement, much of the story of religion and race in American history focuses on Americans white, black, and red. However, this is not the whole story. Mexican-Americans and Latinx immigrants bring Catholic and transnational connections, but their presence has prompted xenophobia. Additionally, white Americans sought to restrict the arrival of Asian immigrants both legally and culturally. With the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the religious, racial, and ethnic diversity of the United States increased further. This religious and racial pluralism in many ways reflects the diversity of America, as does the conflict that comes with it.

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Asian Americans and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots/Uprising  

Shelley Sang-Hee Lee

Although the 1992 Los Angeles riots have been described as a “race riot” sparked by the acquittals of a group of mostly white police officers charged with excessively beating black motorist Rodney King, the widespread targeting and destruction of Asian-owned (mainly Korean) property in and around South Central Los Angeles stands out as one of the most striking aspects of the uprising. For all the commentary generated about the state of black-white relations, African American youths, and the decline of America’s inner cities, the riots also gave many Americans their first awareness of the presence of a Korean immigrant population in Southern California, a large number of Korean shop owners, and the existence of what was commonly framed as the “black-Korean conflict.” For Korean Americans, and Asian Americans more generally, the Los Angeles riots represented a shattered “American dream” and brought focus to their tenuous hold on economic mobility and social inclusion in a society fraught by racial and ethnic tension. The riots furthermore marked a turning point that placed Asian immigrants and Asian Americans at the center of new conversations about social relations in a multiracial America, the place of new immigrants, and the responsibilities of relatively privileged minorities toward the less privileged.

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Ideas of Race in Early America  

Sean P. Harvey

“Race,” as a concept denoting a fundamental division of humanity and usually encompassing cultural as well as physical traits, was crucial in early America. It provided the foundation for the colonization of Native land, the enslavement of American Indians and Africans, and a common identity among socially unequal and ethnically diverse Europeans. Longstanding ideas and prejudices merged with aims to control land and labor, a dynamic reinforced by ongoing observation and theorization of non-European peoples. Although before colonization, neither American Indians, nor Africans, nor Europeans considered themselves unified “races,” Europeans endowed racial distinctions with legal force and philosophical and scientific legitimacy, while Natives appropriated categories of “red” and “Indian,” and slaves and freed people embraced those of “African” and “colored,” to imagine more expansive identities and mobilize more successful resistance to Euro-American societies. The origin, scope, and significance of “racial” difference were questions of considerable transatlantic debate in the age of Enlightenment and they acquired particular political importance in the newly independent United States. Since the beginning of European exploration in the 15th century, voyagers called attention to the peoples they encountered, but European, American Indian, and African “races” did not exist before colonization of the so-called New World. Categories of “Christian” and “heathen” were initially most prominent, though observations also encompassed appearance, gender roles, strength, material culture, subsistence, and language. As economic interests deepened and colonies grew more powerful, classifications distinguished Europeans from “Negroes” or “Indians,” but at no point in the history of early America was there a consensus that “race” denoted bodily traits only. Rather, it was a heterogeneous compound of physical, intellectual, and moral characteristics passed on from one generation to another. While Europeans assigned blackness and African descent priority in codifying slavery, skin color was secondary to broad dismissals of the value of “savage” societies, beliefs, and behaviors in providing a legal foundation for dispossession. “Race” originally denoted a lineage, such as a noble family or a domesticated breed, and concerns over purity of blood persisted as 18th-century Europeans applied the term—which dodged the controversial issue of whether different human groups constituted “varieties” or “species”—to describe a roughly continental distribution of peoples. Drawing upon the frameworks of scripture, natural and moral philosophy, and natural history, scholars endlessly debated whether different races shared a common ancestry, whether traits were fixed or susceptible to environmentally produced change, and whether languages or the body provided the best means to trace descent. Racial theorization boomed in the U.S. early republic, as some citizens found dispossession and slavery incompatible with natural-rights ideals, while others reconciled any potential contradictions through assurances that “race” was rooted in nature.

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Race Films  

Alyssa Lopez

In the early 1910s, Black Americans turned to motion pictures in order to resist the incessant racism they experienced through popular culture and in their everyday lives. Entrepreneurs, educators, and uplift-minded individuals believed that this modern medium could be used as a significant means to demonstrate Black humanity and dignity while, perhaps, making money in the burgeoning industry. The resultant race films ranged in content from fictionalized comedies and dramas to local exhibitions of business meetings and Black institutions. Racial uplift was a central tenet of the race film industry and was reflected most clearly in the intra-racial debate over positive versus negative images of Black life. Inside theaters, Black spectators also developed ways to mitigate racism on screen when race films were not the evening’s entertainment. The race film industry encouraged Black institution-building in the form of a critical Black film criticism tradition, Black-owned theaters, and the hiring of Black employees. Race films and the industry that made their success possible constituted a community affair that involved filmmakers, businessmen, leaders, journalists, and the moviegoing public.

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Black Nationalism  

Mark Newman

The popular media often illustrate black nationalism with images of Malcolm X and black leather-jacketed, Afro-wearing, armed Black Panthers in the 1960s, and, in later decades, Louis Farrakhan and hip-hop artists such as Public Enemy. Although historians disagree about black nationalism’s composition and origins, they argue that it has a long pedigree in American history, traceable at least to the first half of the 19th century, if not earlier. While men were most often black nationalism’s public exponents, and some emphasized manhood and female subordination, black nationalism also appealed to many black women, some of whom also exercised leadership and organizational skills in its service. Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican, led the first mass black nationalist organization in the United States, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), during the 1920s. Like 19th-century black nationalists, Garvey advocated an independent state for people of African descent, black uplift, and the “civilizing” of Africa. Although not original to him, his emphasis on the right to self-defense, independent black economic development, and pride in African history boosted the UNIA’s popularity. Garvey fell victim to state oppression in the United States, but some former Garveyites joined the Moorish Science Temple of America (MSTA) and probably also the Nation of Islam (NOI), both of which rejected Christianity, identified blacks as Asiatics, and adopted particularist interpretations of Islam. In the 1950s and 1960s, Malcolm X, the charismatic son of Garveyite parents, became the Nation’s chief recruiter. Personal differences with Elijah Muhammad, the Nation’s leader since the 1930s, eventually led to Malcolm X’s departure in 1964. Although he was assassinated in 1965, Malcolm X’s calls for armed self-defense, self-determination and black pride, and identification with anticolonial struggles heavily influenced Black Power advocates. Some civil rights organizations and workers, who were disillusioned by intransigent white racism and distrustful of white liberals, championed Black Power, which was multifaceted and sometimes more reformist than nationalist. In the early 1990s, polls suggested that black nationalist ideas were more popular than during their supposed heyday in the late 1960s, before internal dissension and state repression undermined many Black Power groups.

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Latino/a and African American Relations  

Brian D. Behnken

African Americans and Latino/as have had a long history of social interactions that have been strongly affected by the broader sense of race in the United States. Race in the United States has typically been constructed as a binary of black and white. Latino/as do not fit neatly into this binary. Some Latino/as have argued for a white racial identity, which has at times frustrated their relationships with black people. For African Americans and Latino/as, segregation often presented barriers to good working relationships. The two groups were often segregated from each other, making them mutually invisible. This invisibility did not make for good relations. Latino/as and blacks found new avenues for improving their relationships during the civil rights era, from the 1940s to the 1970s. A number of civil rights protests generated coalitions that brought the two communities together in concerted campaigns. This was especially the case for militant groups such as the Black Panther Party, the Mexican American Brown Berets, and the Puerto Rican Young Lords, as well as in the Poor People’s Campaign. Interactions among African Americans and Mexican American, Puerto Rican, and Cuban/Cuban American illustrate the deep and often convoluted sense of race consciousness in American history, especially during the time of the civil rights movement.

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African Americans in the Great Depression and New Deal  

Mary-Elizabeth B. Murphy

For African Americans, the Great Depression and the New Deal (1929–1940) marked a transformative era and laid the groundwork for the postwar black freedom struggle in the United States. The outbreak of the Great Depression in 1929 caused widespread suffering and despair in black communities across the country as women and men faced staggering rates of unemployment and poverty. Once Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), a Democrat, was inaugurated as president in 1933, he launched a “New Deal” of ambitious government programs to lift the United States out of the economic crisis. Most African Americans were skeptical about benefiting from the New Deal, and racial discrimination remained rampant. However, a cohort of black advisors and activists critiqued these government programs for excluding African Americans and enacted some reforms. At the grassroots level, black workers pressed for expanded employment opportunities and joined new labor unions to fight for economic rights. As the New Deal progressed a sea change swept over black politics. Many black voters switched their allegiance from the Republican to the Democratic Party, waged more militant campaigns for racial justice, and joined interracial and leftist coalitions. African Americans also challenged entrenched cultural stereotypes through photography, theater, and oral histories to illuminate the realities of black life in the United States. By 1940, African Americans now wielded an arsenal of protest tactics and were marching on a path toward full citizenship rights, which remains an always evolving process.

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African American Women and Feminism in the 19th Century  

Teresa Zackodnik

What in contemporary parlance we would call African American feminisms has been a politics and activism communal in its orientation, addressing the rights and material conditions of women, men, and children since the first Dutch slaver brought captive Africans to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. Although Black women would not have used the terms “feminist” or “feminism,” which did not enter into use until what is recognized now as the first wave of feminism, scholars have been using those terms for the past two decades to refer to Black women’s activism in the United States stretching at least as far back as the 1830s with the oratory and publications of Maria Stewart and the work of African American women in abolition and church reform. Alongside and in many ways enabled by crucial forms of resistance to slavery, Black women developed forms of feminist activism and a political culture that advanced claims for freedom and rights in a number of arenas. Yet our historical knowledge of 19th-century Black feminist activism has been limited by historiographical tendencies. Histories of American feminism have tended to marginalize Black feminisms by positioning these activists as contributing to a white-dominant narrative, focused on woman’s rights and suffrage. The literature on African American feminism has tended to hail the Black women’s club movement of the late 19th century as the emergence of that politics. Though many people may recognize only a handful of 19th-century African American feminists by name and reputation, early Black feminism was multiply located and extensive in its work. African American women continued the voluntary work that benevolent and mutual aid societies had begun in the late 18th century and established literary societies during the early 19th century; they entered Black nationalist debates over emigration and advocated for the self-sufficiency and education of their communities, including women; and they fought to end slavery and the repressive racialized violence that accompanied it in free states and continued through the nadir. Throughout the century, African American feminists negotiated competing and often conflicting demands within interracial reform movements like abolition, woman’s rights, and temperance, and worked to open the pulpit, platform, press, and politics to Black women’s voices.

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Jazz in America after 1945  

John Gennari

In the post-1945 period, jazz moved rapidly from one major avant-garde revolution (the birth of bebop) to another (the emergence of free jazz) while developing a profusion of subgenres (hard bop, progressive, modal, Third Stream, soul jazz) and a new idiomatic persona (cool or hip) that originated as a form of African American resistance but soon became a signature of transgression and authenticity across the modern arts and culture. Jazz’s long-standing affiliation with African American urban life and culture intensified through its central role in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. By the 1970s, jazz, now fully eclipsed in popular culture by rock n’ roll, turned to electric instruments and fractured into a multitude of hyphenated styles (jazz-funk, jazz-rock, fusion, Latin jazz). The move away from acoustic performance and traditional codes of blues and swing musicianship generated a neoclassical reaction in the 1980s that coincided with a mission to establish an orthodox jazz canon and honor the music’s history in elite cultural institutions. Post-1980s jazz has been characterized by tension between tradition and innovation, earnest preservation and intrepid exploration, Americanism and internationalism.

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Black Girlhood in 20th-Century America  

Miya Carey

Examining American history through the lens of black girlhood underscores just how thoroughly childhood everywhere is not “natural” but depends heavily on its social construction. Furthermore, ideas about childhood innocence are deeply racialized and gendered. At the end of Reconstruction, African Americans lost many of the social and political gains achieved after the Civil War. This signaled the emergence of Jim Crow, placing many blacks in the same social, political, and economic position that they occupied before freedom. Black girls who came of age in the 20th century lived through Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, Black Power, and the rise of the New Right. Moreover, black girls in the 20th century inherited many of the same burdens that their female ancestors carried—especially labor exploitation, criminalization, and racist notions of black sexuality—which left them vulnerable to physical, emotional, and sexual violence. In short, black girls were denied the childhood protections that their white counterparts possessed. If fights for cultural representation, economic justice, equal access to education, and a more just legal system are familiar sites of black struggle, then examining black girlhood reveals much about the black freedom movement. Activists, parents, and community advocates centered black girls’ struggles within their activism. Black girls were also leaders within their own right, lending their voices, bodies, and intellect to the movement. Their self-advocacy illustrates their resistance to systemic oppression. However, resistance in the more obvious sense—letter writing, marching, and political organizing—are not the only spaces to locate black girls’ resistance. In a nation that did not consider black children as children, their pursuit of joy and pleasure can also be read as radical acts. The history of 20th-century black girlhood is simultaneously a history of exclusion, trauma, resilience, and joy.