- Freedom's Racial Frontier: African Americans in the Twentieth-Century West ed. by Herbert G. Ruffin II and Dwayne A. Mack
Two decades have passed since Quintard Taylor published In Search of the Racial Frontier (1998), the most comprehensive history yet written of African Americans in the western states and territories from the Spanish era to the 1990s. Taylor's meticulous scholarship stimulated a wave of new studies in western black history, including biographies, community studies, institutional histories, and anthologies. Freedom's Racial Frontier: African Americans in the Twentieth-Century West, edited by Herbert G. Ruffin II and Dwayne A. Mack, continues this resurgence of scholarship by offering thirteen essays and two oral interviews that examine the varied people, places, and institutions of the black West and the ceaseless quest for equality that black westerners waged to achieve full citizenship. Although the essays in this ambitious anthology lack a strong unifying thesis, almost every contributor views the West as a land of promise, where African Americans had the potential to improve their lives and to shape their futures.
Students of Texas and western history will find rich material on African American community building and racial activism in such diverse areas as Spokane, Washington, Albuquerque, New Mexico, Boley, Oklahoma, and Fort Hood and Houston, Texas, although on occasion they may have already encountered the material. The strongest essay in the collection, Bernadette Pruitt's "'Beautiful People': Community Formation in Houston, 1900–1941," is drawn from Pruitt's excellent book, The Other Great Migration: The Movement of Rural African Americans to Houston, 1900–1941 (Texas A&M University Press, 2013). Similarly, Emily Lutenski's fine essay, "The New Negro Frontier: Jean Toomer, Wallace Thurman, and African American Modernism in the West," was published previously in West of Harlem: African American Writers and the Borderlands (University Press of Kansas, 2015). Still, readers will discover fresh material regarding how African Americans throughout the twentieth century confronted the American West, including in New Mexico and the territories of Alaska and Hawaii, where relatively small African American populations also demanded racial equality.
Some of the most original contributions in this volume pertain to entertainment and the arts. Jeanelle Hope, for example, explores the relationship between African American and Asian women through poetry in the San Francisco Bay Area, an alliance that few scholars have examined, and one that we know virtually nothing about in other western cities. Gabriela Jiménez's essay, "'Something 2 Dance 2': Electro-hop in 1980s Los Angeles and Its Afrofuturist Link," examines the creative nature of African [End Page 219] American dance in Los Angeles by focusing on a genre of electronic music and dance that appeared there between 1983 and 1988. Like hip hop, which appeared on the East Coast and gradually entered the mainstream of both African American and American music generally, electro-hop also appealed largely to young, marginalized African American, Afro Latino, and Latino youth. It was also wildly popular in Europe, particularly Germany.
Although many of the essays in this collection have appeared in print previously, readers will still find much to celebrate. Ruffin and Mack, for example, have given ample attention to the role of gender and sexuality in the twentieth-century West. In his excellent essay, "Black Women in Spokane: Emerging from the Shadows of Jim and Jane Crow," Mack traces the activism of African American middle-class women in Spokane, Washington, such as Bertha Cravens, who used local community organizations and the local branch of the NAACP to fight racial discrimination and to gain important concessions for Spokane's small black population. Similarly, Kevin Leonard's essay, "Containing 'Pervasion': African-Americans and Same-Sex Desire in Cold War Los Angeles," provides a compelling view of how black editors in post-World War II Los Angeles perceived homosexuality in the black community. Readers will also benefit from the extensive bibliographic essay as well as the brief biographical sketches and vignettes of significant events in western history...