‘What do we do with the Black “settler”‘? Tiya Miles, ‘Beyond a Boundary: Black Lives and the Settler-Native Divide’, The William and Mary Quarterly, 76, 3, 2019, pp. 417-426

07Aug19

Excerpt: WHAT do we do with the black “settler”? Or rather, what do we do with the more than one hundred thousand African Americans who moved north and west onto violated and usurped Indigenous lands in the nineteenth century? We have sidestepped this question in studies of the American Midwest and West even as settler colonial frameworks of analysis have reshaped Native American history. As a result, we still reach for the familiar and now especially charged term settler when describing black residents, with all of the conceptual baggage that word carries in our present historiographical moment as indicating agents or subagents of the settler colonial state beset with a “recurring need to disavow the presence of indigenous ‘others'” in the interest of controlling Native lands. Black “pioneer” (a label that “performs a similar disappearing act” by “discursively eras[ing] the indigenous peoples who were there ab origine“) likewise still appears in studies of the Black West. For example, a recent book that admirably reveals and enlivens black farmers’ experiences in the nineteenth-century Midwest asserts that African Americans were “pioneers in the purest sense, willing to risk their freedom and their lives for the chance to gain not just land but their rights.” Certainly the pollution of the category “pioneer,” rather than its purity, begs attention. But, as a cohort of scholars, we rely on this loose and yet electrified terminology—echoing an earlier historiography’s language for white settlers—of heroic black settlers, pioneers, and buffalo soldiers taming a wild frontier and organizing land use for civilized productivity, even though we recognize that black survivors of slavery were a distinctive group.

African Americans who came to dwell in the house of settler colonialism struggled to emerge whole from a proximal past of stolen lives and labor. They fought against stacked odds to set down new roots and grow strong families and communities. 



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