African or American?: Black Identity and Political Activism in New York City, 1784–1861 (review)
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Reviewed by
African or American?: Black Identity and Political Activism in New York City, 1784–1861. By Leslie M. Alexander. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008. Pp. xxiv, 258. Cloth, $45.00.)

Leslie M. Alexander’s study is a welcome addition to the burgeoning body of books on the emergence of free Black American communities in the northern United States after the American Revolution.1 As the author [End Page 155] notes, African or American? joins studies by Leslie Harris, Graham Hodges, Craig Wilder, and Shane White.2 While those authors grapple with questions of “work, culture and class,” “manhood and . . . evangelical Christianity,” and the “rise of the free Black community” in New York City, respectively, Alexander brings attention to both Black identity and the political strategies of the Black leadership until the outbreak of the Civil War (xiv–xv). Drawing nimbly on the scholarship that precedes her study, she carefully interprets and deploys a wide range of sources such as newspapers, pamphlets, court records, petitions, and popular images to limn the contours of “Black” nationalist politics. This focus places her in conversation with Sterling Stuckey’s Ideological Origins of Black Nationalism (Boston, 1972) and Slave Culture (New York, 1987) and Patrick Rael’s Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North (Chapel Hill, NC, 2002). Unlike either of them, Alexander is concerned with Black elites’ use of cultural reform or emigration as strategies to overcome the vexing and overlapping problems of continued racism, limited citizenship, and anti-Black violence enacted in print or corporeally.

Despite the frame of “identity,” a notion that suggests a stable, if not essentialist, relationship, Alexander provides a narrative of Black elites’ changing but unceasing relationship to “African heritage.” This suggests a sometimes strategic identification with Africa as a potential site of diasporic Black freedom as well as a “pan-African vision” (xviii). Alexander’s reading of Black American identity-in-flux does not seem to be derived from theories of nationalism or identity, but rather from close attention to the public statements of Black elites themselves. For example, Alexander notes early naming practices by Black elites, such as the “Africans and descendants of Africa” in orations and “African” churches (chapters 1–3), but places those in tension with the same elites’ regular reliance on the strategies of “moral uplift and republican rhetoric” (23). According to African or American? this double-voiced strategy persists [End Page 156] at least until the eve of the Civil War. For example, Alexander recounts how, during the 1860 Free Suffrage Convention, some elites claimed citizenship rights based on being the progeny of “Black Revolutionary War patriots” (137), even while others such as James Theodore Holly and Henry Highland Garnet embraced projects for emigration to Haiti in service of the “cause of the descendants of Africa throughout the world” (151). In this context, “African” or “American” seems to be a matter of strategic identification rather than essential identity.3

The tension between identification with Africa and/or America is borne out further as Alexander documents the relationship between strategies of moral reform and African-inspired revelry in celebrations of the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the later West Indian emancipation. Alexander notes that these celebrations often included voiced orations and their printed counterparts as well as processions in the street accompanied by sartorial splendor, singing, and revelry. African or American? most clearly shows how the two elements of Black Abolition Day rituals were often at odds in its examination of the 1827 celebration of legal emancipation in New York State (54). In an 1827 planning meeting held at the African Society’s meeting house, the leadership “declared that Black folks should ‘abstain from all processions in the public streets’ ” because they were concerned that rowdy celebrations would damage Black Americans’ prospects for full citizenship rights and respectability (55). Apparently, some still desired to celebrate with a procession as had been traditional, so there were two celebrations, one on July 4, consisting of an “official address and prayers” and another on July 5, including a “grand procession” (54–55). In an ironic twist, Alexander notes that some members of the African Society for...


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