- U.S. history from the Revolution to the Civil War
- Migration/international relations in the nineteenth century
- 'Race' in the nineteenth century
I am a historian of the United States and Atlantic world from the mid-eighteenth to the late nineteenth century, specializing in ideas and policies of black resettlement in the era of the American Civil War. As improbable as it seems, as at 1850, perhaps a majority of Americans believed that they would witness the large-scale geographical separation of the races as soon as they would the abolition of slavery.
While scholars have grudgingly noted the persistent appeal of such proto-segregation, a potent mixture of incredulity and modern unease around racial removal has confined the topic to the paradoxical realm of the ‘tangential’ discussion that nevertheless appears in hundreds of books. Since the dominant, integrationist interpretation of U.S. race relations is one of integration for the most part denied, there is a better case to treat separation as historically normative.
The book that I am writing, Black Resettlement and the American Civil War (Cambridge University Press, North America), will not merely deliver the work that historians of the United States keep skirting around, but will also open up the international dimensions that are indispensable to any study of migration.
The book is based around the resurgence of interest in black ‘colonization’, emigration, and separatism during the period c. 1845-65. It examines the centrality of resettlement plans in stimulating free black protest and formulations of ethnic identity, and investigates whether separatist and integrationist strains flourished more symbiotically or competitively. It explores how colonization allowed whites the escapism of envisioning an America without slavery, albeit one that could conversely shirk its founding promises by pointing blacks to other locales in which to seek equality. It steers the debate away from the binary assumption that white colonizationists either respected black consent or did not, whereas the yawning gap between black unwillingness and white ambition actually engendered a spectrum of coercive pressures on African Americans.
Moreover, Black Resettlement considers the contested implications of ‘colonization’ as emigration, ‘informal’ expansion, and outright annexation, from the perspective of both the United States and would-be host states. In a similar vein, it assesses how recipient polities viewed African Americans as compared to other immigrant groups. Indeed, the topic has increasingly turned me into a wider Americanist and Atlanticist as well as a specialist on the United States.
That transformation was set in motion by my first book, Colonization after Emancipation, which one reviewer thought made it ‘exceedingly difficult to plausibly frame the Civil War in terms of a feel-good, evolutionary racial narrative’. While researching that work, I came across evidence of a little-known wave of ex-Confederate emigration to Belize after the Civil War. Building on my newfound interests, my next project will be on the Confederate diaspora, in which defeated and disaffected white southerners scattered themselves throughout the Americas and beyond in an attempt to reconstruct at least something of what they had known in their antebellum lives.