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A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration

4.9 out of 5 stars 12 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674011694
ISBN-10: 0674011694
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In his bold and extensively researched study of the black political traditions emerging out of slavery, Hahn continues the field's ongoing demolition of the myth of the submissive slave cowering before his master and the ignorant freedman passively waiting for his "40 acres and a mule" to fall from the sky. In their place, he offers an occasionally overstated but compelling portrait of rural Southern blacks fighting for political and economic power despite entrenched and often violent obstacles. From clan-based organization on the plantation through Reconstruction-era political party mobilization to the rise in emigrationist sentiment culminating in Garveyism in the 1920s, Hahn describes the serious groundwork that became most visible with the franchise but had formed long before the Civil War. He is at his strongest chronicling the hidden history of slave resistance, emphasizing slaves as agents of change, and spends less time on the extent and dimensions of psychological slavery, the vestiges of which continued well after emancipation. Hahn also minimizes the colonialist impulses behind the formation of Liberia, treating emigrationism as an expression of black resistance. While the book's prose is often congested, the research is formidable, bringing to the fore intricate histories of unknown but significant struggles. Original and deeply informed, the book does an excellent job of rendering those devoted "to the making of a new political nation while they made themselves into a new people."
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From The New Yorker

Looking back on his antebellum childhood, Booker T. Washington wondered at how slaves "on the remotest plantations" had so knowledgeablydebated "the great National questions." Hahn argues, in this ambitious and fascinating book, that associations of slaves—centered on kinship, work, and religion—were far more intricate, enduring, and politicized than has been realized. For Hahn, plantation life was the crucible in which modern black political communities were formed. Slaves who hid under porches to overhear news later astonished their former masters by marching in groups to the polls (with women acting as "enforcers" of party loyalty). One of the most striking theses here is that black rural laborers, rather than urban, educated freeborn leaders, radicalized Reconstruction. Freed slaves were also, Hahn writes, some of the most important advocates America ever had for a broad concept of citizenship based not on property or education but on "manhood"—for which he calls them "the jacobins of the country."
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 624 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press (November 10, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674011694
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674011694
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #984,832 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover
Every now and then one reads that political history has fallen on hard times. And there is some truth to this. Much political history seems awash in a sea of detail, accounts of endless intrigues and bureaucratic machinations whose overall significance is unclear, while regression coefficients run amuck. Surely, a reader may be tempted to think, Michael Holt's 1296 page history of the Whig Party tell us more than anyone would possibly want to know about the subject. Steven Hahn's new book is very different. Twenty years ago he published "Roots of Southern Populism," a brilliant monograph on postbellum white Southern farmers. Now after two decades this new book fully confirms the promise of his first book. It helps, of course, that Hahn cares about his subject and makes sure that we care as well. Hahn tells the story of black Southern politics from the last decade of slavery to the civil war through Reconstruction. Then he goes on about the next two decades before disfranchisement when African-Americans sought to maintain their positions with alliances with the Virginia Readjusters in the 1880s and the Populists in the 1890s.
But surely we already know the basic contours of the story. Do we really need to be told that African-Americans were not just passive subjects but actively sought their own political ends? But Hahn provides much more than this. For a start he provides a much larger definition of politics than other writers might. He looks at the kinship networks, the importance of church and school, the significance of labor, and the value of community. Notwithstanding the wide unity of African-Americans he takes special care to discuss differences over region, strategy and especially class.
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Format: Hardcover
Steven Hahn's history "A Nation Under Our Feet" (2004) tells an inspiring and broad story: how rural Southern African Americans took steps towards political empowerment as a group beginning with the period of slavery and continuing through the Great Migration to the Northern states beginning early in the Twentieth Century. Hahn is a Professor of American History at the University of Pennsylvania, and his book received, and justly so, the Pulitzer Prize, the Bancroft Prize and the Merle Curti Prize in Social History.

The purpose of Professor Hahn's study is to show how African Americans from their earliest days in the South attempted to organize to take control of their own destiny. The book challenges the view of many historians that African American political activism was predominantly only a reaction to white oppression and to the unwillingness of Southern whites to have African Americans assume a full role in political life.

Professor Hahn's book is arranged chronologically in three broad Parts. Part I covers African American political activity during the pre-Civil War and Civil War period. He describes how blacks, even in the condition of slavery, used their position to wrest concessions from the slaveholders, including the right to farm their own plots, to make limited sales of produce, and to visit neighboring plantations. He describes the growth of an informational network during these years, an early commitment to education to literacy, and the beginnings of a political organization. These early efforts intensified during the Civil War with the advance of Union Armies in the South, the defection of many slaves, and the service of Southern African Americans in the Union Army.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I suspect that Steven Hahn's "A Nation Under Our Feet" (ANOUF) was originally and primarily intended for a collegiate-level academic audience, perhaps in a history course studying slavery in the United States and its aftermath. However, it almost certainly received a much wider than intended audience when it won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in History. Indeed, that is the reason I read the book, as I try to read the Pulitzer Prize winning history book every year, to expand upon the very minimal grounding in history that one receives in today's U.S. educational system. So, the "non history major" perspective is the one from which I am reviewing this book.

Although ANOUF is pretty dense and does resemble a typical academic tome, with long paragraphs and voluminous footnotes, the compelling subject matter and Steven Hahn's prose elevate it far above the typical sleep-inducing history book that only finds a home on dusty college library shelves. I can surmise several reasons why the Pulitzer panel chose to honor it: the importance of the subject matter (black politics from before emancipation to the great migration north); the painstaking research that Hahn put into the project (by reading this book, you get the condensed wisdom from what appears to be hundreds of other books and documents that Hahn studied); and the quality of Hahn's writing, which manages to present detailed descriptions of events in a fairly engaging manner. It's not the page turner that "The DaVinci Code" is, but the subject matter is far more important.

ANOUF aims to describe how blacks in the South, especially the rural South, practiced politics both during and after slavery.
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