Battleground or Meeting Ground?
It is very natural that the history written by the victim does not altogether chime with the story of the victor.
-- Jose Fernandez of California, 18741
In 1979, I experienced the truth of this statement when I found myself attacked by C. Van Woodward in the New York Review of Books. I had recently published a broad and comparative study of blacks, Chinese, Indians, Irish, and Mexicans, from the American Revolution to the U.S. war against Spain. But, for Woodward, my Iron Cages: Race and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America was too narrow in focus. My analysis, he stridently complained, should have compared ethnic conflicts in the United States to those in Brazil, South Africa, Germany, and Russia. Such an encompassing view would have shown that America was not so "bad" after all.
The author of scholarship that focused exclusively on the American South, Woodward was arguing that mine should have been cross-national in order to be "balanced." But how, I wondered, was balance to be measured? Surely, any examination of the "worse instances" of racial oppression in other countries should not diminish the importance of what happened here. Balance should also insist that we steer away from denial or a tendency to be dismissive. Woodward's contrast of the "millions of corpses" and the "horrors of genocide" in Nazi Germany to racial violence in the United States seemed both heartless and beside the point. Enslaved Africans in the American South would have felt little comfort to have been told that conditions for their counterparts in Latin America were "worse." They would have responded that it mattered little that the black population in Brazil was "17.5 million" rather than "127.6 million" by 1850, or whether slavery beyond what Woodward called the "three-mile limit" was more terrible and deadly.
What had provoked such a scolding from this dean of American history? One might have expected a more supportive reading from the author of The Strange Career of Jim Crow, a book that had helped stir our society's moral conscience during the civil rights era. My colleague Michael Rogin tried to explain Wood