F20 Black Atlantic: Resources, Pedagogy, and Scholarship on the 18th Century Black Atlantic

[Week 4 Launch] Discourses of Activism and Citizenship: A Black Atlantic Approach

In the talk Christopher James Bonner gave on his book Remaking the Republic: Black Politics and the Creation of American Citizenship, formulated and explored his thesis regarding the nexus of ambiguity surrounding the production of American citizenship and the ways in which that nexus both aimed to disenfranchise blacks but also provided the openings for them to lay claim to and forge citizenship for themselves.  Bonner cites U.S. Attorney General Edward Bates 1862 observation that citizenship remained a “question as open to argument and speculative criticism as it was at the founding of the Government” and argues that “Black people suffered under this ambiguity, but also seized on it in efforts to transform their nominal freedom.”  As Bonner points out, no constitutional law said that blacks could not be citizens, and so they laid claim to it through an organized system of political conventions, public protests, legal cases, and fugitive slave rescues.  As always in terms of the dialectical relationship between the marginalized and the center, Bonner argues that these black activists were thus “at the center of creating the very meaning of American citizenship.”

Bonner also illustrates the fraught discourse surrounding this activism even within the black community, highlighting the ways in which such debates continue in ongoing activism.  He cites, for example, op-eds by Samuel Cornish in the Colored American that criticized protesting crowds as lawless and hurting the reputation of the black community and draws parallels to op-eds and speeches made by Barrack Obama against looters and property violence.  Bonner frames breaking the law as a political choice that shapes legal structures as much as activism, like voting, that takes place within the system, arguing as well that violent protests do not distract from issues so much as criticism of the violence does by obscuring the motivations behind it.

This framing of the ongoing negotiation of citizenship vis a vis the just enjoyment of legal rights and the legal system becomes a transhistorical bridge of conceptualizing activism and its techniques, and it might well work as a cross-cultural lens, too.  While the ways in which British colonial subjects like West Indians have had to negotiate their own citizenship differs from the history of American blacks, there are nonetheless parallels and the resonances of those parallels across the Black Atlantic might emerge particularly well in an archive that explores activism, its praxis, and the discourses surrounding it in a more global manner.  Perhaps positioning Bonner's text in conversation with Paul Gilroy's There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack, a text "concerned with the difficult passage of Caribbean migrants from their social construction as an ethnos to the desire goal of full citizenship" (Gikandi 242), would help develop such a political paradigm.

Work Cited

Gikandi, Simon. “Afterword: Outside the Black Atlantic.” Research in African Literatures, vol.

     45, no. 3, 2014, pp. 241-44.

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