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  • Beyond a Boundary:Black Lives and the Settler-Native Divide
  • Tiya Miles (bio)

What do we do with the black "settler"? Or rather, what do we do with the more than one hundred thousand African Americans who moved north and west onto violated and usurped Indigenous lands in the nineteenth century?1 We have sidestepped this question in studies of the American Midwest and West even as settler colonial frameworks of analysis have reshaped Native American history. As a result, we still reach for the familiar and now especially charged term settler when describing black residents, with all of the conceptual baggage that word carries in our present historiographical moment as indicating agents or subagents of the settler colonial state beset with a "recurring need to disavow the presence of indigenous 'others'" in the interest of controlling Native lands. Black "pioneer" (a label that "performs a similar disappearing act" by "discursively eras[ing] the indigenous peoples who were there ab origine") likewise still appears in studies of the Black West.2 For example, a recent book that admirably reveals and enlivens black farmers' experiences in the nineteenth-century Midwest asserts that African Americans were "pioneers in the purest sense, willing to risk their freedom and their lives for the chance to gain not just land but their rights."3 Certainly the pollution [End Page 417] of the category "pioneer," rather than its purity, begs attention. But, as a cohort of scholars, we rely on this loose and yet electrified terminology—echoing an earlier historiography's language for white settlers—of heroic black settlers, pioneers, and buffalo soldiers taming a wild frontier and organizing land use for civilized productivity, even though we recognize that black survivors of slavery were a distinctive group.

African Americans who came to dwell in the house of settler colonialism struggled to emerge whole from a proximal past of stolen lives and labor. They fought against stacked odds to set down new roots and grow strong families and communities. We know their enslavement depended on movement—the removal of their ancestors from West and Central Africa, their forced marches across the land in a rabid domestic slave trade, their relocation with owners and owners' heirs caught up in cotton fever.4 We understand—thanks in part to Ronald T. Takaki, who synthesized this overlaid history nearly three decades ago—that black expulsion into the western "frontiers" of slavery was predicated on Indian removal.5 We are beginning to grasp in greater fullness the extent to which credit markets for the purchase of former Indigenous land in the cotton West depended on the collateralization of enslaved black bodies in local, regional, and global networks.6 Each of these forced removes that African Americans endured, what Leslie A. Schwalm has called a pattern of "uprootings," required starting anew on grounds that were not rightfully their own, making theirs an ambivalent form of settlement, a situatedness of subjection.7 "The spatial alienation that slave transportation effected," as Patrick Wolfe put it, reinforced the system of holding [End Page 418] a people captive who could not escape to homelands and set African Americans on a quest for belonging laden with pathos and impossibility.8

In order to obtain freedom in the antebellum period, many captive blacks fled. To realize, at least nominally, the fruits of freedom during and following the Civil War, enslaved people of African descent often saw no choice but to move again, enacting what Kendra T. Field has perceptively called a long "continuum of flight" across multiracial and transnational spaces that included Indian Territory as well as Liberia, Mexico, and Canada.9 Those who remained within the borders of the present-day continental United States traversed rivers, wound through forests, and trudged across state lines to realize their dreams of autonomy from racial tyranny. As Michael P. Johnson has written about migrants in the 1860s: "These refugees from Dixie comprised the largest voluntary interstate migration of African Americans in the first century of the nation's history, over 80,000 in all." Following the demise of Reconstruction, tens of thousands streamed into all-black towns such as Nicodemus in what Nell Irvin Painter has called the "Kansas...