African American historiography has relied on one of the most basic premises of professional history – the analysis of change over time. Several of the most famous works in the field have titles like “From Slavery to Freedom” or “From Plantation to Ghetto.” These approaches emphasize the connection between human experience and physical space.
Over the last thirty years, generational theory has come into inform these initial histories. Ira Berlin’s two major contributions to the study of American slavery – Many Thousands Gone and Generations in Captivity – attempt to categorize different “eras” of enslavement. With this approach, readers can begin to understand the evolving institution of American slavery between 1528 and 1865.
With the re-election of President Barack Obama last year, a new generation of scholars must confront the fundamental shift in the historical project that his existence creates. While his Presidency does not rupture the continuing narrative of African American struggle for equal rights in the United States and around the world, President Obama exercises greater institutional authority than any person of African descent in recent human history. His accomplishment surpasses comparison to Mary McLeod Bethune, Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, or Frederick Douglass. He stands beside Taharqa, Pope Victor I, and Mansa Musa in world history.
In this historiography, reasonable titles might include “From Nile to Potomac” or “From Pyramid to White House.” These kinds of plausible narratives change much of the standard teaching about the intersection of Europe and Africa in the Americas. However, even within the narrow confines of American history, this new chapter justifies a title like “From Commodity to Commander.” This transition emphasizes the status of Africans as both property and currency in North America for two full centuries. Much of the struggle for civil rights between 1870 and 1970 pursued equal opportunities as employees and consumers within an unchanging system of white authority.
Perhaps a subtitle could be “The Consumer Phase” in describing the conditions that enabled President Obama’s mercurial rise. It was the massive private spending that African Americans brought to the American economy that the Democratic Party defended so forcefully over the last forty years. Spending was at the foundation of the Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Carol Moseley-Braun campaigns for President between 1984 and 2004. Only the audacity of President Obama’s insurgent candidacy crystallized the emergence of African-American ownership and leadership in world affairs.
The persistence of this legacy in generating open, global participation in the electronic, financial, and medical marketplaces worldwide is the truest measure of a new era in human civilization.
Dr. Walter Greason is the author of Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey (2013)