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American Quarterly 57.1 (2005) 261-269

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The Roots of Black Nationalism?

A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration. By Steven Hahn. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003. 608 pages. $35.00 (cloth).

Two decades ago historians of the American South began to reconsider the agrarian transformation marked by the passing of a social order based on the command of slave labor and the inauguration of a rural society in which the formerly enslaved made their way as free people working the land. Eric Foner's Nothing But Freedom, a series of lectures published in 1983 as he prepared his magisterial work Reconstruction, placed the history of slave emancipation in comparative and international context. When measured against other nineteenth-century emancipations in plantation societies, Foner argued, the enfranchisement secured by freedmen in the United States allowed them, for a time, to shape the postwar political economy in the South.1 Black political power during Radical Reconstruction meant, above all, joining the contest over the disposition of land and labor.

As George Fredrickson noted in a review at the time, "The freedmen were striving for the kind of economic independence and relative security that had been enjoyed by the white yeoman class of the Old South."2 As it happened, the yeomen too had just then found their own historian in Steven Hahn. His 1983 book, The Roots of Southern Populism, cast the white upcountry citizens of the nineteenth-century South as self-sufficient smallholders drawn inexorably—and tragically—into market relations by the transformation of postemancipation southern agriculture. While not all scholars accepted Hahn's portrayal of the yeoman class as anticapitalist republicans, few could deny that the destruction of slavery ushered in a radical reconfiguration of agrarian class relations, even in the "backcountry" regions of the Confederacy that had been relatively distant from the center of the slaveholders' power.3

In many ways Hahn's latest book, the prize-winning A Nation under Our Feet, tells much the same story of the politics of agrarian transformation as his first, but this time from the point of view of the emancipated slaves and their inheritors, and with a focus on the South's plantation belt, rather than its hills. [End Page 261] Much as he did before in The Roots of Southern Populism, Hahn assembles a wide array of the most local of sources to breathe life into the motivations of ordinary people in the countryside, and to give larger political meaning to their daily personal struggles to acquire and hold land, build their families, and defend themselves against those who wielded more traditional—and historically visible—forms of power. His subject then was the passage of the South's white yeomanry from economic independence to tenancy, and that class's subsequent political mobilization, across the divide of secession, Civil War, and Reconstruction. But, for all its persuasive power, Rootswas based on only two upcountry counties in Georgia. Now, relying on extraordinary, in-depth research in the massive records of the Freedmen's Bureau, as well as local records culled from more than a dozen state archives, Hahn recounts the experience, consciousness, and mobilization of African Americans across the entire rural South, from slavery through emancipation, enfranchisement, and its loss, from East Texas to Southside Virginia.

As Hahn readily admits in his opening pages, A Nation under Our Feet grew out of a more modest effort to investigate the remarkable political mobilizations among former slaves at the dawn of freedom that he discovered in research in the records of the Freedmen's Bureau, the Civil War-era military agency that oversaw the transition to freedom. To explain the foundations of black politics, Hahn looks backward from Reconstruction to "identify constituent elements of slave politics" (3) in the antebellum period, and in this he is largely successful. Less convincing, however, are his efforts to project the black political culture forged in the waning days of slavery and the first days of freedom across the boundary of the twentieth century, and to...


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