Toward a Transnational Research Agenda for African American History in the 21st Century

Article excerpt

"Globalization" is the buzzword of the first decade of the 21st century, a development which comes as no revelation to close students of African American history, who, after all, scrutinize a people with roots in Africa who now sojourn in North America. Still, "globalization" should be a major theme for any viable research agenda in African American history, not least since the growing interdependence of this planet bids fair to have a transforming impact on the people who have come to be known as African Americans, as jobs traditionally relied upon for sustenance migrate relentlessly abroad, which suggests that this century will involve an ever increasing level of global interdependence. Of course, since employment--or slavery--was the primary reason why Africans were brought to North America in the first place, it comes as no great surprise that political economy is a primary lens through which we should view the fate of African Americans.

The acceleration of globalization, with its handmaidens of the World Wide Web, super-sonic transport, the proliferation of English-language skills and the like, suggests that if one's work-product can be digitized, or if one's job can be performed more profitably abroad--and that includes attorneys, architects, x-ray technicians, along with factory workers--then one runs the risk of being "dis-intermediated" or, basically, unemployed. Consequently, more than most, African Americans, whose status in this nation is perennially parlous, should be conversant with global developments and conscious of some of the historical trends that have brought us to this point.

Moreover, as scholars have informed us at length, it is no accident that the miserable system of Jim Crow segregation began to retreat precisely as World War II and the Cold War were unfolding: how could the United States purport to be a paragon of human rights virtue in the face of Japan's claim to be the "champion of the colored races"? (1) The leaders of the Soviet Union made similar claims of non-discrimination. (2) How could Americans win hearts and minds and convince the wavering colored peoples in the developing world that they should be followed, if the U.S. was exposed globally as a hypocrite that did not practice what it preached? The sensitivity of this nation to global pressure is reflected in the odyssey of both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Paul Robeson: the former came under ever sharper criticism after he condemned the war in Vietnam, while the latter ran afoul of American officials when he refused to go along with Cold War premises.

The argument here is that this confluence between global politics and the fate of African Americans was not simply a product of events that unfolded at a certain point in the 20th century but, instead, have inhered in the nature of the African experience in North America. Just as the way we view history changes when gender is invoked, leading to different questions and different answers, something similar occurs when the global is invoked in writing African American history. (3) The rather modest points I make here arguing for the development of a transnational research agenda should not be seen as grappling definitively with this crucially important matter. Instead, it should be seen as a tentative first step that by its nature cries out for collaboration and collective consideration.

As the writer Juan Enriquez informs us, it is not altogether clear that the nation now known as the United States of America will survive in its present form in this century--a projection that, if true, will have enormous consequences for the most vulnerable, especially U.S. African Americans. (4) Already, there is a thriving sovereignty movement in Hawaii, which bids fair to reduce the stars on the flag from fifty to forty-nine. (5) Scholars would be remiss if we were to suffer a failure of imagination and neglect to anticipate weighty developments of gargantuan importance for the community we purport to know and inform. …