- The Politics of Black Citizenship: Free African Americans in the Mid-Atlantic Borderland, 1817–1863 By Andrew K. Diemer
In January 1817, a group of black Pennsylvanians held a meeting that resulted in a unanimous denunciation of the American Colonization Society (ACS) and its program of removing black people from the United States. [End Page 478] This is perhaps one of the best-known moments in antebellum black politics—a well-documented collective gathering that produced a clear political statement that black people were Americans. Andrew Diemer adds valuable texture to this well-worn story. He notes that despite the oft-cited unanimity of the gathering, James Forten, a wealthy black Philadelphian and vocal protest leader, was initially undecided on colonization but that popular black sentiment swayed his opinion. Diemer also frames this meeting as being about more than the ACS. The gathered activists made "an argument about … the place of African Americans in the United States," issuing a public statement on an urgent legal and social issue for the country (20). Through moments like this anticolonization meeting, The Politics of Black Citizenship offers insightful analysis of antebellum black politics that positions that activist work alongside state and national debate about the shape of the country and black peoples' place within it.
Diemer's work is localized in the areas surrounding Baltimore and Philadelphia, two cities with large free black populations, which he explores as a borderland connected by commerce and developing transportation technologies. Divided by a legal boundary between slavery and freedom, this region became a center of conflict concerning fugitive slaves, resulting in contentious encounters that wove black and antislavery activism into discussions about state and federal law. The connections between these communities across the border of freedom gave particular legal and political meanings to black protest. The border is critical to understanding black and antislavery politics in both Baltimore and Philadelphia.
Anticolonization was a critical foundation for antebellum black politics; challenging removal projects was a prerequisite to seeking rights as American people. Diemer opens by noting that the ACS appealed to some black Americans such as Paul Cuffe, who saw colonization as the seed of a "cosmopolitan black Atlantic community" (15). Ultimately, black people opposed the ACS because they recognized it as a project of defining the United States as a white man's republic and the potential root of a variety of inequalities based on race. In addition to intracommunity dynamics revealed through people like Forten, Diemer is explicit about the long reach of protest against the ACS. Newspapers from as far away as Kentucky printed records of the 1817 meeting, helping black people insert their voices into the discourse on membership in the nation.
Colonization was fundamentally about citizenship, as it aimed to determine who could claim a place in the country. Diemer points out that, in the 1820s, Haiti appealed to people like Richard Allen, who saw opportunities for equality in the black republic and evidence of black capability that could be deployed in protest in the United States. Black Americans were [End Page 479] interested in Haiti because it offered possibilities for political participation, which many framed as an essential aspect of a citizenship that went beyond the ability to claim a place within a nation.
Citizenship was an ill-defined legal concept in the early nineteenth century. As Diemer notes, it was useful to black activists because its meaning was unspecified. At times, though, The Politics of Black Citizenship misses opportunities to analyze the ways black and white people thought about the concept and the work they did to specify and codify its meaning. Black Pennsylvanians, Diemer says, saw little hope for "full legal equality" in the late 1820s, and so they framed their work "as a struggle for black citizenship" (62). Did these men and women understand citizenship as something different from, or less than, legal equality? If so, what did it mean to them, and what might their ideas indicate about the nature of citizenship...