*This post is part of our roundtable on “Contested Citizenship,” organized in collaboration with the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at the MacMillan Center at Yale University.
“Harrowing” is the word that historian Martha Jones uses to describe the precarious legal status of free Black Americans who were subject to enslavement under Black laws or deportation from their native land in antebellum America. Jones describes free Black people’s situation as “…a “harrowing legal limbo,” in “George Hackett, Baltimore’s Birthright Citizen,” the essay she contributed to this Black Perspectives Roundtable examining contested citizenship.
“Harrowing” is an apt word that describes the circumstances that Black Americans faced in May 2020, during the days that lagged between the release of a video depicting George Floyd pinned to the ground and the arrest of Floyd’s murderer.
In that numbing interval between viewing Floyd’s death and law enforcement’s decision to arrest Chauvin, the unabashed words of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney haunted my thoughts. In his majority decision of the 1857 Dred Scott case, Taney sounded an ostensible death knell to free Black people’s campaign to win citizenship. Taney ruled that Black people could never be legal citizens of the United States; he infamously decreed that a black man had no rights that a white man was bound to respect. The vacillation that delayed Chauvin’s arrest cast the status of Black people in a harrowing legal and moral limbo, not unlike the precarious status that free Black Americans faced in Jones’s framing of antebellum America. Were Black people bona fide citizens in May 2020, or were we quasi-citizens? Would Chauvin’s freedom reify Taney’s sentiments proclaimed more than one hundred fifty years before, that a white man need not respect a black man’s rights, even his right to life?
The shelter-in imposed by COVID-19 notwithstanding, I desired to hear these questions discussed in a public forum. In June 2020, I proposed a collaboration between the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at the MacMillan Center at Yale–the organization at which I am privileged to work–and AAIHS/Black Perspectives to facilitate the discussion of contested Black citizenship. Since its inception, AAIHS/Black Perspectives has made a significant intervention in intellectual studies by asserting Black intellectual discourse into traditional academic societies, journals, and higher education curricula. The organization has fostered my own academic journey since 2015, first as an independent researcher and now as a doctoral student investigating public school curriculum history and its influence on ideas of U.S. citizenship, national identity, and the development of the American narrative.
Today, the political landscape of our present moment is even more rife with challenges to Black Americans’ rights and privileges than when I proposed the roundtable one year ago. Nowhere is this challenge more relevant to me than in the zealous revival of culture wars that conservatives have launched around the teaching of history in America’s public schools.
Consider that in May of this year federal law enforcement officials identified white supremacists as the biggest domestic terror threat in the nation. Yet, at the same time, Republican lawmakers at state and Congressional levels were vociferously indicting as divisive classroom lessons that examine systemic racism. Bills banning discussions of race have been proposed in nearly half of American states including Arkansas, North Carolina, Arizona, Idaho, Florida, Tennessee, and New Hampshire. In 2019, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas proposed a bill threatening to defund schools that teach the 1619 Project created by award-winning reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones and the New York Times Magazine. More recently and outrageously, on July 15, the Texas state Senate passed Senate Bill No. 3, aimed at quelling the conjured threat of critical race theory from indoctrinating children with racists ideas. Tapped for elimination from the Texas curricula are farm labor organizer Cesar Chavez, suffragist Susan B. Anthony, and Native American history, generally. Also, writings about Ona Judge; Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas; and Dr. Martin Luther King’s writings, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and “I Have a Dream” speech, are on the chopping block.
These political maneuvers to eliminate diverse voices from school curricula are ominous but are not new. They echo a history of curricula reforms promoted since the nation’s founding that adheres to the “master script,” an official American narrative that amplifies dominant white voices over the diverse multiracial voices that embody our nation.
In the immediate aftermath of the American Revolution, cultivating a patriotic population among the diverse European ethnicities was of great concern to some founders. Benjamin Rush, a prominent Pennsylvania physician and signatory of the Declaration of Independence, urgently called for a curriculum to convert German, English, Dutch and other colonists into “republican machines,” that is, compliant inhabitants espousing the national values of the newly formed Republic. A new curriculum had to groom people who did not yet exist—American citizens. As a rule, Black and Native inhabitants were excluded from the education created to confer citizenship to white Americans. In its promotion of civics education and fundamental American values, the 1776 Commission created by former President Donald Trump seeks to restore in public schools a white-washed vision of the United States, one that endorses freedom and liberty but denies the systemic inequality that impedes the aspirations of most of its citizens of color and magnifies the illusion of individual effort as the prevailing factor is white people’s success.
The six essays published in this roundtable thoughtfully interpret the theme, contested citizenship, from distinct viewpoints; collectively, they portray a story of the unrelenting challenge to Black people’s citizenship in America. Historian Martha Jones extends the narrative begun in her transformative study, Birthright Citizens, in the penetrating essay, “George Hackett, Baltimore’s Birthright Citizen.” Economics professor William Darity and Charles Ali Bey, cofounder of the United Sons and Daughters of Freedmen (or USADOF), usefully explain connotations of the concept, “citizen,” and relate how those meanings impact the argument for reparations to Black Americans in their essay, “Contested Citizenship: Allegiance, Birth Right, and Race in America.” The essay, “Policing Black Freedom,” by sociologist Phillip McHarris, is a trenchant analysis of contested citizenship with regard to obsessive police tactics that violate Black people’s rights and privileges and impede their abilities to achieve the potential that full citizenship would accord them. Historian Kerri Greenidge portrays Black people’s assertion of their worthiness of citizenship through the shrewd activism of Boston Guardian publisher William Monroe Trotter and NAACP secretary James Weldon Johnson, Boston attorney Robert Morris and others in the essay, “The Black Roots of ‘Rights and Privileges.’” In “The Black Athlete and the Vote,” historian Louis Moore highlights contemporary athlete-social activists but also reminds readers of the historical legacy of black athletes who used their clout to agitate for Black people’s voting rights. Black people’s rites of mourning and pursuit of dignity in death—as a consequence of contact with violent Western culture—is perceptively explored in the essay by historian Crystal Webster, “Unmarked and Unburied: Unsettled Black Death as a Critique of Citizenship.”
The discussion I hoped for one year ago is more than fulfilled in the essays published in this roundtable. I thank the scholars for their thoughtful and elucidating interpretations of “contested citizenship,” and I sincerely thank the directors and editors of AAIHS/Black Perspectives for their commitment to bringing this project to fruition. Most of all, I hope that readers will be stimulated by the ideas presented here to begin to or extend their participation in buttressing Black citizenship for future generations.