Sanctuary: African Americans and Empire

Sanctuary: African Americans and Empire

Sanctuary: African Americans and Empire

Sanctuary: African Americans and Empire


In 2005, hurricane Katrina and its aftermath starkly revealed the continued racial polarization of America. Disproportionately impacted by the ravages of the storm, displaced black victims were often characterized by the media as "refugees." The characterization was wrong-headed, and yet deeply revealing. Sanctuary: African Americans and Empire traces the long history of this and related terms, like alien and foreign, a rhetorical shorthand that has shortchanged black America for over 250 years.

In tracing the language and politics that have informed debates about African American citizenship, Sanctuary in effect illustrates the historical paradox of African American subjecthood: while frequently the target of legislation (slave law, the Black Codes, and Jim Crow), blacks seldom benefited from the actions of the state. Blackness helped to define social, cultural, and legal aspects of American citizenship in a manner that excluded black people themselves. They have been treated, rather, as foreigners in their home country. African American civil rights efforts worked to change this. Activists and intellectuals demanded equality, but they were often fighting for something even more fundamental: the recognition that blacks were in fact human beings. As citizenship forced acknowledgement of the humanity of African Americans, it thus became a gateway to both civil and human rights.

Waligora-Davis shows how artists like Langston Hughes underscored the power of language to define political realities, how critics like W.E.B. Du Bois imagined democratic political strategies, and how they and other public figures have used their writing as a forum to challenge the bankruptcy of a social economy in which the value of human life is predicated on race and civil identity.


The phrase “I’m no-where” expresses the feeling borne in upon many Negroes that they have no
stable, recognized place in society. One’s identity drifts in a capricious reality in which even the
most commonly held assumptions are questionable. One “is” literally, but one is nowhere; one
wanders dazed in a ghetto maze, a “displaced person” of American democracy.
RALPH ELLISON, “Harlem is Nowhere”

THE CALL FOR refuge punctuates the slave moan. It is heard in the plaint of Negro spirituals and the slave songs whose “[e]very tone” Frederick Douglass tells us “was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.” It resonates in the timbres of Billie Holiday’s throaty belt in “Strange Fruit,” and in the wail of Louis Armstrong’s bluestoned horn against the bruised black body in “(What did I do to be so) Black and Blue?” It is the hope expressed, and the promise sought, in the forward march of black migrants across the countryside or through the congested train station terminals that Jacob Lawrence painted in his sixty-panel mural, The Great Migration Series (1941). It was toward this promise that blacks fled the South, heading north by the thousands during the early decades of the 1900s, rejecting the indignities and violence of Jim Crow with its peonage, sharecropping, chain gangs, mob tyranny, segregated railways, and kangaroo justice. Reappropriating nineteenth-century abolitionist discourse, black newspapers encouraged flight to “The Land of Hope” —the North—and leveled the distance between slavery and the strangled freedom that emerged postemancipation. Urging his readers to leave the neocolonialism of a segregated Dixieland, The Chicago Defender’s founder and editor, Robert S. Abbott, launched the “Great Northern Drive,” a mass exodus to begin May 1917. They would become the migrants Walter Turpin imagined in O’Cannan! (1939), families like Richard Wright’s, for whom Chicago in 1927 resembled a place without “racial fear.” And it is to such a mythologized space that Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man escapes, burying himself underground in response to a racism that had rendered his humanity illegible. Borne out of an attempt to grapple with the persistent calls for safe space that have shaped black letters in the United States, a call that underwrote black emigrationist campaigns during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that inspired blueprints for a black empire and utopian and migration fictions, and that launched freedmen’s colonies and black townships (both real and imagined)—is the plea for sanctuary.

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