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  • Where Are All the Black Folks?Popular Narratives and the Erasure of Black History in Arizona
  • Meskerem Z. Glegziabher (bio)


I am not originally from Arizona. In fact, prior to moving to the state, I lived in nine cities across three continents. Five of those cities were constituted by an average 29.4 percent Black population. So, when I arrived in Phoenix in 2014, I became quickly and acutely aware of the fact that I saw far fewer people who looked like me than any other city in the United States where I had lived. A cursory internet search informed me that Black folks here only accounted for 6.8 percent of the population, and I began actively asking my new neighbors and colleagues what parts of the city were home to the local African American and other African diasporic communities.1 I got some variation of the same anecdotal narratives from almost everyone I asked: that most of the local Black population here are "transplants" or relatively new arrivals from other cities; that there did not seem to be an established African American community here, but there are some pockets of African immigrant communities; and lastly, that there were no identifiable historically [End Page 345] Black neighborhoods in the city due to the consistently small population. Interspersed between these narratives would be references to the same few recognizably Black institutions: the long-standing African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church; a popular soul food restaurant; and occasionally the George Washington Carver Museum.

While my informal survey drew heavily from university faculty, staff, and students—many of whom were themselves "transplants"—I noticed that these narratives were nevertheless pervasive around the city. They underscored local news stories about race and racism, which focused primarily on the relationship between white and Latinx communities; they echoed in the silence about Black cowboys in the popular narratives of the American West and Arizona Territory prior to statehood; and they reverberated in the empty lots and shiny new buildings which now stand where important landmarks of the local Black community once stood.

There has been a long history of Black migration to, and settlement in, what is today Arizona that dates as far back as the Spanish expeditions of the 1500s, through the Great Migration of the twentieth century, and well into the present day. Despite the long history, local popular histories and mainstream narratives rarely acknowledge the presence of a robust African American community in Arizona. For instance, the index for Marshall Trimble's popular history of the state, Arizona: A Cavalcade of History, lists a mere three pages in its entry for "Blacks," including "Black cowboys" and "Blacks in the military." In contrast, the entry for Wyatt Earp in the same index lists five pages.2 This disparity is particularly illuminating when considering that Trimble was named Arizona's Official State Historian in 1997 and was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Arizona Office of Tourism in 2007. Thus, his work offers a firmly mainstream narrative of the state's history.3

Black folks are often characterized as recent arrivals and marginalized to a fringe status in public discourse about Arizona communities that tend to focus on the larger white, Latinx, and Indigenous populations.4 Black people, African American and [End Page 346] immigrant alike, are labeled as outsiders and largely excluded from narratives about the past, present, and future of Arizona. In this essay, I explore the ways in which Black Arizonans are rendered indiscernible within the dominant historical narratives of the American West and contemporary debates around racialized belonging and marginalization. I do so by first briefly discussing the comparative dearth of scholarship and archival materials about African Americans within Arizona and the American West and the further inaccessibility of the existing scholarship to the wider public. I then examine how this issue is compounded by the proliferation of myths regarding Black presence and experience in Arizona, white-centric popular representations of the American West, and the erasure of African American historical landmarks from the contemporary landscape.

Discursive Erasure and Indiscernibility

What does it mean to be omitted from history textbooks? What are the implications of not being able...