The Color of the Land: Race, Nation, and the Politics of Landownership in Oklahoma, 1832-1929

The Color of the Land: Race, Nation, and the Politics of Landownership in Oklahoma, 1832-1929

The Color of the Land: Race, Nation, and the Politics of Landownership in Oklahoma, 1832-1929

The Color of the Land: Race, Nation, and the Politics of Landownership in Oklahoma, 1832-1929

Synopsis

The Color of the Land brings the histories of Creek Indians, African Americans, and whites in Oklahoma together into one story that explores the way races and nations were made and remade in conflicts over who would own land, who would farm it, and who would rule it. This story disrupts expected narratives of the American past, revealing how identities--race, nation, and class--took new forms in struggles over the creation of different systems of property.

Conflicts were unleashed by a series of sweeping changes: the forced "removal" of the Creeks from their homeland to Oklahoma in the 1830s, the transformation of the Creeks' enslaved black population into landed black Creek citizens after the Civil War, the imposition of statehood and private landownership at the turn of the twentieth century, and the entrenchment of a sharecropping economy and white supremacy in the following decades. In struggles over land, wealth, and power, Oklahomans actively defined and redefined what it meant to be Native American, African American, or white. By telling this story, David Chang contributes to the history of racial construction and nationalism as well as to southern, western, and Native American history.

Excerpt

“Oklahoma” means “red man” in the Choctaw language, is run though by a “Black Belt,” and has been claimed by some as “white man’s country.” It has been termed an Indian homeland, a black promised land, and a white heartland. All these competing racial claims to one place seem extraordinary. This book suggests, however, that Oklahoma is really exceptional only because it encapsulates so much American history within its borders, revealing much about how the struggle over land has given shape to the way Americans—indigenous, black, and white—created and gave meaning to races and nations.

Phrases like the ones above mark Oklahoma with a race and tie that race to the land. Of course, land itself cannot have a race. Race is a way that we imagine differences between people and make hierarchies among them seem right and natural. So racializing a land (marking it with a race) really means tying it to a particular people, whether they be Creek Indians, African Americans, white Americans, or some other group that we believe can be identified racially in some way. After all, speaking of “a land” is also a way of speaking of a country or a nation. The title of this book is an attempt to evoke this relationship between land, race, and nationhood. This book considers both the symbolic power people give land in such terms as “homeland,” “Black Belt,” or “white man’s country” and the economic power that land possesses. Oklahoma, like the rest of America, was until recently a largely rural and agricultural society. Land was a foundational form of wealth, a source of power, and an object of contention in that so-

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