(John Rose, The Old Plantation (Slaves Dancing on a South Carolina Plantation), ca. 1785-1795, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Williamsburg, VA, No. 1935.301.3.)
In the age of Trump, histories of the American Revolution are relevant, but how so? Should the Revolution be taught with a hopeful view of the possibilities born from this watershed moment in the creation of a new peoplehood? Is it necessary to excavate the deeply rooted limits of American citizenship to substantiate the cynicism born from over two hundred years of anti-black proscription and violence? Interestingly, when I teach the American Revolution in the context of classes about African American history, I find that many students arrive already understanding the Revolution as a story of inclusion and potential. In response, I foreground the Revolution against the development of anti-black racism and white supremacy. In this context, we study Black people as pivotal actors, but also as subjects constrained in profound ways.
I introduce students to three historiographical readings of the Revolution given that each perspective frames Black activism differently and that each position argues for distinct relationships between the past and present. One view notes the paradoxes of the Revolution, but also emphasizes this period as a watershed for popularizing and enshrining liberal and democratic ideas. This story highlights oppression and marginalization while being hopeful for the expansion of democracy and the reduction of inequality.
A second interpretation is always skeptical, even cynical, seeing the War of Rebellion as a conservative reaction against the possibility of Spanish and especially British support for slave revolt. This interpretation positions the American Revolution within processes that consolidate white supremacy and institutionalize racial oppression. This position argues that American democracy emerged from the distinction that white people could be equal citizens amongst themselves, and that Black people could be freed but not made citizens. A third view is less interested in explaining the development of American identity and community and more focused on placing America’s Revolutionary era within broader transformations of abolition and capitalism.
I ask students to consider how each perspective interprets the significance of Black resistance. This raises questions relevant to activism today. Has a history of Black critique been at least partially successful in pushing America to become more egalitarian? Have Black people naïvely overlooked the intractability of anti-black racism? How have African Americans sought to attain citizenship, redefine citizenship, and even look beyond citizenship as they have tried to carve out spaces of community and political power?
Phillis Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley, Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley, of Boston, in New England (London, 1773)
The examination of Phillis Wheatley presents a classic case study for exploring these questions. Wheatley published her poems as an enslaved English colonist in 1773 and died as a free American in 1784. As someone who wrote across the Revolution, part of Wheatley’s genius stemmed from expertly reading imperial geographies and using them not only to win her freedom but also to argue for abolition broadly. Yet, even when we see the Revolution as providing a historic and unprecedented opportunity for the creation of new and expansive democratic forms, it also helped to define culture in problematic ways.
The American Revolution helped Wheatley and other Black people make a new kind of argument for ending their enslavement. However, this did not mean that African ideas and traditions would be considered equal to histories of western Europe. This is still true. Even if we argue that the American Revolution created new opportunities for original conditions of freedom, those of African descent were left with little to no room to have native African cultures inform the creation of American nationalism. Despite liberal humanism’s universalization of the human condition, it also represented racialized and culturally specific ideas of what it meant to be an American. Liberal ideas allowed for African bodies to be recognized as human and for slavery to be eventually abolished. However, liberal ideas also helped to dismiss the cultures, histories, and, ironically, even bodies of people descended from Africa.
Because I want my students to connect the problems of the past with the conflicts of the present, I emphasize the American Revolution less as a story of progress and success and more as a drama wherein Africans and African Americans tried to imagine political identities that were not confined to tropes and geographies of an American nation. Categories like patriot and loyalist overdetermine the political strategies of Black people during the Revolution. I help students to consider the complexity and diversity of black political thought and action, and I urge them to think creatively and expansively about their own political selves. Africans and African Americans during the American Revolution simultaneously acknowledged and looked beyond American nationalism. In this vein, we discuss the American Revolution relative to longer histories of resistance against racism and inequality. It is in these conversations that undergraduates make important links between the past and present.
Given our current politics, I find that my students identify useful histories of the Revolution less by discussing its successes and more by investigating how different groups experienced and engaged its failures. In the context of paradox, conundrum, and conservatism, my students are captivated by Black people’s political imagination, visions of the world and of community that refused to be constrained by the developing political and geographic boundaries of America. I hope this lesson stays with them beyond the course.