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  • Manliness and Manifest Racial Destiny:Jamaica and African American Emigration in the 1850s
  • Gale L. Kenny (bio)

In September 1850, President Millard Fillmore signed the Fugitive Slave Act into law, and a new era in black emigration movements began. As thousands of African Americans fled to Canada, the new law prompted some black leaders to think about more permanent emigration to a number of places, including Central America, Haiti, and the British West Indies.1 In the words of Martin Delany, a leading black advocate of emigration, "the only true, rational, politic remedy for our disadvantageous position" was to seek "a new country, and new beginning."2 To Delany and other black emigrationists, the Fugitive Slave Act signaled American lawmakers' renewed commitment to perpetuating slavery and racial prejudice, and black Americans would have to seek economic, political, and social equality elsewhere. In Jamaica, a group of white Americans and Britons who had long resided on the island agreed, and in late 1850 they organized a campaign to recruit African American emigrants to their adopted home.3 While the Jamaican emigrationists had little success, their campaign and Americans' responses to it both relied on and made explicit the gendered assumptions underlying nationalism and manifest destiny. Further, the gendered case for emigration brought to the surface tensions between geographical and political borders in hemispheric discussions about national identity, race, and citizenship in the 1850s.4 As residents of an emancipated society, the Jamaicans argued that emigration, like emancipation, promised black men "the entitlements of masculinity," including economic independence, voting rights, and the chance to head a patriarchal household.5 Like the British Baptist missionary Samuel Oughton, they asked American abolitionists: how could not "every civilized colored American" prefer to live in a country where they would "immediately enjoy the privileges of men, and the rights of subjects and citizens?"6

In some ways, calls for black emigration in the 1850s echoed the rhetoric of the African colonization movement. As Nicholas Guyatt has argued, some advocates for Liberia had promoted an ideology of "benevolent [End Page 151] colonization" in the 1820s and 1830s, and the Jamaican emigrationists expressed a similar vision.7 By becoming nation-builders and missionaries, black men would demonstrate the independent manliness that they could never obtain as a perpetually "degraded" population within the United States.8 Despite some colonizationists' antislavery beliefs, black activists in the North and white abolitionists laid bare the racist anatomy of the American Colonization Society (ACS).9 This fierce antagonism in the North toward colonization worked against an effort to recruit African Americans to Jamaica in the early 1840s. When black emigration once again became a popular topic in the early 1850s, the transnational slavery debate had shifted with British emancipation, and critically, new ideas about citizenship and nationalism, as well as imperialism and American expansion, had emerged as viable motifs emigrationists could employ. As Patrick Rael has argued concerning black activists in the North, the Jamaican emigrationists borrowed from and reoriented the ideologies circulating in the Atlantic world to serve their cause.10

The Jamaican emigrationists consequently differed from African colonizationists in important ways. Unlike colonizationists in the United States, the Jamaicans never put forward an argument about the "degraded" character of free blacks in the United States; instead they described African Americans as hardworking and morally upstanding citizens who had been continually victimized by the irrational prejudices of white Americans. Interestingly, the emigrationists presented Jamaican society as far more "degraded" by slavery than were free blacks in the North, and they saw emigration as a solution: African Americans would at once escape the deadlocked United States and claim the manly citizenship rights denied to them at home, while aiding Jamaica in the process.

Because black emigrants could not, of course, legally become American citizens once they moved to Jamaica, the emigrationists focused instead on the cultural attributes of citizenship, and they took full advantage of the fluid definitions of citizenship in the early 1850s.11 In particular, the emigrationists borrowed from the ideas underlying liberal and romantic nationalisms in order to privilege the gendered characteristics of manly and independent citizens over the need to live within fixed territorial boundaries.12 Additionally, the act...


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