When Steven Hahn, the Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor in American History, visited the New York Historical Society’s exhibit, Slavery in New York, several years ago, he was surprised by how surprised visitors were to discover New York’s long involvement with slavery. “Most were simply stunned,” he recounts in his new book, The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom. They never knew how deeply embedded slavery was in the North and that it remained a national—not just Southern—institution right up to the Civil War.
Hahn is a specialist on the history of the American South, the history of the 19th-century United States, the international history of slavery and emancipation, and African American history. His book A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration won several prestigious awards, including a Pulitzer Prize.
His new book takes to task the deeply rooted slavery-to-freedom narrative that most of us learned in school. That story admits the centrality of slavery in U.S. history and celebrates emancipation, but it emphasizes the struggle for assimilation, integration and citizenship by generations of freed slaves. “I try to interrogate that narrative and suggest it is more complicated than we make it out to be,” Hahn says, “and that we ought to take the aspirations that don’t fit neatly into this narrative more seriously.”
Hahn explores 150 years of African American history, looking at how slaves and freed blacks practiced politics from the lead-up to emancipation through the rise of Black Power. He looks at “slavery’s wide expanse and prolonged demise” and uncovers previously hidden tales of African American political organization and activism. Hahn notes that 150,000 slaves crossed Union lines during the Civil War and took up arms. (More than half a million fled the plantations.) Southern authorities understood the act as armed insurrection and dealt with it by execution. “What seemed so obvious to slaveholders and Confederate officials at the time, however, has been widely resisted or rejected by historians,” he writes. He asks whether the writers of history have simply missed what is the greatest slave rebellion in modern history.
Hahn also examines the mostly hidden history of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, founded by Marcus Garvey. UNIA was a black-empowerment movement that aimed to establish a nation of its own in Africa. It had many followers in the 1910s and ‘20s—“probably the largest social movement among people of African descent in the 20th century,” Hahn says—but there is little scholarly study of its “long political and intellectual shadows.” Historians tend to see facts that emphasize “ideals and goals … that black and white Americans embraced together,” he argues—equal rights, integration and other democratic ideals. Narratives that inform us about grassroots political activity that promote black self-determination, self-governance and self-defense have gone largely untold.
The received history that tells the story of African Americans’ journey from slavery to civil rights has a lot of staying power. “I am struck by how difficult it has been to unsettle well-entrenched frameworks of analysis and ways of seeing the past,” Hahn writes. The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom is ultimately “about the political worlds of both history making and history writing.”
How Historians Have Written about Emancipation
The Black Power Legacy of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association