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

[Week 10] The Mythological White Atlantic: Exploring Claims of White American “Indigeneity”

The evocation and manufacture of particular white histories have long been tools by which white Americans produce narratives designed to render autochthonous and putatively indigenous their presence in the New World in a nationalist mode.  Versions of transatlantic history involving the Vikings and the Irish have been employed in this manner, as have symbolic refigurations of indigeneity itself. 

The early twentieth century saw a partial turn toward the Vikings as American forefathers who symbolically recuperate the “discovery” by whites of the American continent in a hermeneutic shift that conceptualizes the Vikings as a non-genocidal and non-Catholic American ancestor.  Vinland and the Vikings have had a function in the modern American imagination for 150 years (Miyashiro n.p.).  In his 1925 work of historical reimagination In the American Grain, William Carlos Williams attempts to to uncover “the true ethos” of the US (Rigaud 8), and in doing so, he frames Eric the Red, metonym of the broader Viking history with North America, as part of a “motif of discovery […] presented as seminally American” that initiated the American enterprise (Rigaud 26).  Before that, a statue of Thorfinn Karlsefni was erected in Philadelphia in 1920, as was one of Leif Erikson in 1885.  Dorothy Kim, among other scholars, has identified a mythic versioning of Viking history as contemporarily influential in alt-right and white nationalist circles (n.p.).

Meanwhile, the ahistorical myth of transatlantic Irish enslavement has been employed to decenter Africans and the Middle Passage from the American narrative of its self-fashioning.  Liam Hogan describes that claim as invested in the idea “that indentured servitude and penal servitude can be equated with racialized perpetual hereditary chattel slavery” and that the Irish endured such a system from 1612 through 1839 (Amend n.p.).  The complex and contested history surrounding the Irish relationship with the construction of whiteness into the early nineteenth century supposedly grounds this alternative history in a matrix of conceivability.

In the American cultural imagination of the revolutionary era, generating a sense of Euro-American indigeneity became a fundamental aesthetic and political mechanism for justifying and establishing the revolutionary project.  Defying British authority dialectically required the production of a valid American identity and cultural consciousness.  Imbuing the Euro-American population with indigeneity involved a complex discursive system for apprehending, challenging, and appropriating the aboriginal condition of Native American given their ostensibly obvious precolonial presence.  As such, the abstraction of the Native American as a locus of symbols and codified meanings became the fundamental mechanism of manufacturing an American indigenous consciousness.  This is apparent not only in works like J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur’s Letters from an American Farmer  and Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle but also in historical episodes like the Boston Tea Party, “[a] chorus of Indian war whoops sounded outside the hall, and a party of what looked like Indian men sprinted down the street to the wharves” (Deloria 2).

One way to trace the rise and evolution of these alternative histories digitally would be to chronologically map them on a timeline that also took other moments of intensified American nationalism, from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the Red Scare to the formalization of the Pledge of Allegiance into account.

Works Cited

Deloria, Philip J. Playing Indian. Yale UP, 1998.
Jensen, Richard. “‘No Irish Need Apply’: A Myth of Victimization.” Journal of Social History,
        vol. 36, no. 2, 2002, pp. 405-29.
Kim, Dorothy. “White Supremacists Have Weaponized an Imaginary Viking Past. It’s Time to
       Reclaim the Real History.” Time, 15 Apr. 2019, time.com/5569399/viking-history-
       nationalists. Accessed 30 Oct. 2020.
Rigaud, Antonia. “A Phosphorous History: William Carlos Williams’ In the American Grain.”
       European Journal of American Studies, vol. 11, no. 1, 2016, pp. 5-60.

*Note:  For an extra response credit on top of this response, I attended the 10/29 session of Dr. Dorothy Kim's F20 Class: "Vikings," Vinland, and North America.  Part of this response draws from discussions had in that class session as well as the Myth of Irish Slaves theme for our class this week.*

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