ARB Guide to (Alternate) Histories of Black Autonomous Communities in the U.S.
Recent films like Black Panther and television shows like Watchmen and Lovecraft Country have sparked popular interest in imagining fictional Black nations, such as Wakanda, and historical communities like Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But speculative fiction authors and radical Black political organizers have been envisioning Black nation-states and autonomous Black communities within alternate U.S. histories and organizing spaces for a long time.
The U.S. has a long history of creating racially restrictive or exclusive communities in white politics—slavery and the three-fifths clause in the U.S. Constitution, the Jim Crow segregation of housing, education, and other aspects of daily life in the South, sundown towns, Black exclusion laws in western states like Oregon, immigration quotas against people of color, and disfranchisement and racial terrorism across the nation up to the present day. And this is not an exhaustive list. There is also a long history of white efforts to dispossess Black, Indigenous, and other people of color of their land and political power, from the basic practices of settler colonialism to legal and extralegal measures that take away or destroy long-established housing, farms, and businesses. Given all this, it’s no wonder that fiction writers and radical Black political organizers have imagined how the nation and its land could be shaped and organized differently to create a better and more just world for the dispossessed.
Histories of white exclusion and Black communities are often not part of mainstream knowledge in the U.S., as recently demonstrated by the surprise over and interest in Tulsa’s Black Wall Street and its destruction depicted in Watchmen and Lovecraft Country—but such communities touch the lives and histories of everyone in the nation. The U.S. has been home to many Black-majority communities, such as Freedmen’s towns and neighborhoods, historically Black colleges and universities, and Black business districts such as D.C.’s U Street, Richmond’s Jackson Ward, Durham’s Hayti, Birmingham’s Fourth Avenue North, and more. Though they operated from a radically different position of power than whites-only communities, and were often created and maintained as separate by white law and violence, these communities still provide economic opportunity and a sense of collective identity, and even agency, for their participants. Intentional Black separatist movements also imagined Black spaces, like the pan-Africanism of Marcus Garvey, some of the Nation of Islam’s political and religious beliefs, and Black Power organizing in the 1960s.
The works on this ARB Guide encompass histories and alternate histories of imagined Black nation-states or other alternative communities. Though Black separatist movements inform several of the works on this list, the nations imagined in these texts are not necessarily racially exclusionary. Many of the works mention white people living in these countries or involved in their founding or governance. Others imagine circumstances in which Latinx, Asian, or Indigenous communities stand in solidarity with Black people, sometimes with nations of their own. Some offer critiques of nationalism itself and its effects on the social construction of race and ethnicity. But the focus of all of these works and their nations are on Black people, Black political organizing, and imagining what Black self-determination and independence might look like.
Though academic histories and speculative fiction are very different kinds of texts, demanding different reading strategies and analytic tools, they sometimes reach toward similar ends. Exploring little-known aspects of U.S. history can reveal how our present was never inevitable, but was created by choices and power struggles not unlike those we face today. Speculative fiction imagines that the world is something other than what it is, whether through the technologies of science fiction, the magic of fantasy, or the counterfactual narratives of alternate history. Speculative fiction can liberate us from the tyranny of historical narratives while still giving us ways to engage with the horrors of the past. If the present is not inevitable, if the past could have easily gone another way, then we still have the ability to change our future.
Activist and Afrofuturist Walidah Imarisha writes that “all organizing is science fiction.” In a moment beset by fascist politics in the White House, rampant police violence, and a rising tide of protest demanding better treatment for Black people and a rethinking of institutions like prisons and policing, these texts give us space to imagine how the past, present, and future of the United States might be reconfigured to work towards Black liberation.
* * *
- Fire on the Mountain. Terry Bisson. PM Press, 2009.
Terry Bisson’s short novel Fire on the Mountain is an alternate history about what might have happened had John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, been successful. Many alternate histories have been written about what might have happened if the South had won the Civil War. Bisson asks, instead: what if enslaved people had won, and then founded their own country?
In this world, Yasmin Odinga, an archaeologist from the Black socialist nation of Nova Africa—roughly the Deep South—travels across the border to Harper’s Ferry in 1959, carrying a stack of her great-grandfather Dr. Abraham’s journals, which are to be read on the hundredth anniversary of Brown’s raid and deposited at a museum nearby. The museum director offers her the chance to read the letters of the white physician who had trained her great-grandfather, and the three narratives provide the strands of the novel. The journals show Dr. Abraham’s life, first under slavery and at the epicenter of the initial rebellion in Harper’s Ferry; the letters depict the life of Thomas Hunter, a white physician and secret abolitionist from a Virginia family of enslavers; and the worldbuilding of Yasmin’s story gives Bisson a chance to hint at how those events changed history and created a Black socialist nation in the Deep South. A fictional novel within the story, John Brown’s Body, depicts what seems to be our real-world history of the Civil War, which Bisson uses to unsettle common understandings of the American past and highlight the racism that infuses American life.
- “A Black Kingdom in Postbellum Appalachia.” Danielle Dulken. Scalawag Magazine, Sept. 9, 2019.
In this nonfiction essay, Dulken explores the history of The Kingdom of the Happy Land, a Black settlement in western North Carolina. In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, at least one group of newly freed people left the Deep South and traveled north through the Appalachian Mountains, settling in the hills around Lake Summit. Exact narratives vary, but it seems clear that the group formed a communal society and shared resources in order to secure land ownership. A couple reigned as “king and queen,” and the settlement lasted for around fifty years, from the 1860s into the 1910s. Though many Freedmen’s towns were formed after the end of the Civil War, few operated in this communal fashion or used the language of monarchy to describe their politics. Dulken questions this framing, and wonders how power might have actually worked there, but finds no answers.
Dulken uses the history of this settlement to combat stereotypes of Appalachia as a predominantly white space. She places the history of Happy Land in the context of U.S. settler colonialism, highlighting violent removal of indigenous communities by the U.S. government, and the violent treatment of Black communities during slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and into the present day. The existence of the Kingdom is largely unknown, except to a few local community educators, and so Dulken emphasizes the need for Appalachia to acknowledge its Black history and present. Because, as she puts it, “Black history supports Black futures.”
- Black Utopia: The History of an Idea from Black Nationalism to Afrofuturism. Alex Zamalin. Columbia University Press, 2019.
Zamalin tackles the history of the idea of Black utopias in American letters. This academic monograph discusses many fictional narratives that could easily be included on this list, like Martin Delaney’s Blake, of the Huts of America, W.E.B. Du Bois’s science fiction writings, Sun Ra’s jazz experiments, and several of Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler’s novels.
Zamalin argues that “Black American reflections on the idea of utopia contain some of the most powerful political ideas in the American tradition,” and shows how these works critique white utopias, respond to current and historical events, and, even in the midst of dystopian presents, open up space for Black liberation. Zamalin pays careful attention to the histories of creators as well as their works. He often contrasts individual authors’ conservative political stances on issues like patriarchy or true democracy with the political idealism embedded in their works—which might encompass popular autonomy, equality, and freedom. Ultimately, he argues that the space between an author’s real life convictions and the imaginary politics of their fictional worlds is a source of “creative conflict” for both authors and readers, because “the experimental desire to begin something new explodes what is real and sensible of a given moment, or what itself counts as the future.”
- The Black God’s Drums. P. Djèlí Clark. Tordotcom, 2018.
P. Djèlí Clark’s slim novella, The Black God’s Drums, follows Creeper, a young teen girl living on the streets of Free New Orleans in 1884. Oya, an African orisha, speaks to Creeper and sends her visions. These warnings and visions help Creeper navigate the politics of a fractured United States where evil Confederates are looking to get their hands on a magical weapon, one that enabled a different version of the Haitian revolution and the freeing of other colonies in the Caribbean.
Clark offers another alternate vision of the Civil War; in this world, enslaved communities in New Orleans revolted in the first year of the war and took over the city, along with the help of Free Colored militias. The Union and the Confederacy are still split, and New Orleans is an independent city-state, ruled by a council of “ex-slaves, mulattoes, and white business folk.”
Clark’s work emphasizes the international nature of New Orleans, and the deep connections that the city has not only to the U.S., but also the Caribbean, South and Central America, and Europe. Through those connections, a shift in the history of the Haitian Revolution sparks consequences for North America, emphasizing the importance of that event, and imagining how a little bit more power on the Haitians’ side might have enabled a freer world.
- Buffalo Soldier. Maurice Broaddus. Tordotcom, 2017.
Buffalo Soldier takes place in Broaddus’s Pimp My Airship universe, a world in which the colonies lost the American Revolution. The British empire and its colonies have become the Albion Empire, Tejas is a free republic, and the West has been transformed into the First Nations, an alliance of indigenous communities and ex-slaves. The story follows former spy Desmond Coke, from the free nation of Jamaica, as he finds himself sheltering a young boy named Liji. Agents from several countries seem to want Liji, and pursue the two across the Southwest.
Broaddus imagines how nation-states themselves might be different; at one point a representative of the First Nations corrects Desmond, explaining to him that the Albion Empire’s propaganda is wrong: the First Nations are not a single nation. Rather, they are “a collective of independent nations,” or “regionalisms that govern ourselves.” By exploring the potential for solidarity between runaway slaves and Native Americans, and envisioning vastly different national boundaries, Broaddus imagines a North America that could have been.
- Dispossession: Discrimination against African-American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights. Pete Daniel. University of North Carolina Press, 2013.
The works on this list, whether fictional or academic, all engage with the Black experience in America. It’s worth including a text that expresses the opposite of what organizers and authors imagine with their Black nation-states, a work that clarifies the real histories they experienced. Pete Daniel’s work covers one expression of a very long history of the dispossession of Black land in America. Daniel charts the loss of Black farmland in the South from the 1940s to the 1970s, when the number of Black farmers dropped by 93%. Even in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, even after laws to protect people of color from discrimination were passed, discrimination continued in many forms. Here, Daniel shows how it continued in the Department of Agriculture, which denied Black farmers loans, information, and access to programs meant to assist in weathering the technological changes of that period, which demanded costly investment in new machinery and techniques. Though this is only one example of the ways American culture, laws, and political structures combined to oppress African-Americans, it is a particularly stark vision of why organizers and authors might be so concerned with the fate of land.
- Free the Land: The Republic of New Afrika and the Pursuit of a Black Nation-State. Edward Onaci. University of North Carolina Press, 2020.
Onaci’s Free the Land is an academic history of the New Afrikan Independence Movement (NAIM). In 1968, a group of over 500 Black nationalists met at the Black Government Convention; after days of meetings and discussions, several dozen signed a document “declaring to the world that they would struggle for the complete independence and statehood of the Black nation, which they named the Republic of New Afrika.” Participants imagined a new Black nation in the Black Belt of the United States—roughly Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. They described themselves as “captive” and argued they were part of an internal colony of the United States, and that, like other colonized nations, they were owed self-determination and independence.
Onaci’s work is the first to focus wholly on the Republic of New Afrika and NAIM. He traces its connections to the politics of Detroit in the 1950s and 1960s, its connections to other Black Power organizing, and explores how participants in the movement used the broader ideals and goals of their political work to examine and critique their personal lives, which then drove decisions they made in organizing spaces. In some ways, the RNA resembles Bisson’s Nova Africa from Fire on the Mountain (and it’s likely Bisson was aware of the movement when he wrote that novel)—a real world attempt to imagine how the U.S. land and politics might be shaped differently, with equity and justice.
- Everfair. Nisi Shawl. Tor Books, 2016.
Shawl’s Everfair imagines a new nation-state not in the U.S., but rather in Africa, located in part of the Belgian Congo. This novel offers a critique of many steampunk works, which often ignore empire and colonialism while wallowing in trite images of Victorian England. Everfair tackles the effects of empire, colonialism, and slavery head on. The novel’s point of divergence occurs in the 1890s, when British Fabian socialists, abolitionists, and African-American missionaries form an alliance and found the nation of Everfair by purchasing land from the Belgian Empire. They take in refugees from surrounding colonies, invent their own steampunk technology, build alliances and spy on other nations, and struggle to govern equitably while navigating the gender, racial, sexuality, and class constructs of the Victorian era.
Like Clark and Broaddus’s works, Shawl also imagines how this new nation might impact international relations. While Clark focuses on the Caribbean and Broaddus on North America, Shawl traces how a free nation made up of formerly enslaved people, indigenous communities, socialists, and both Black and white missionaries might shift African and European politics. Shawl’s work argues that, with a little more power and land, a nation like Everfair—messy as its own politics are—could even have changed the course of World War I for the better.
- Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi. Edited by Kali Akuno, Ajamu Nangwaya, and Cooperation Jackson. Daraja Press, 2017.
The history of the New Afrika Independence Movement did not stop in the 1970s, but continues into the present in Jackson, Mississippi. Some of the organizers of the NAIM pooled resources and bought land in Hinds County, in the hopes of founding a new society “built with no color, class, gender, and physical ability discrimination.” They deliberately chose Mississippi, home to some of the worst discrimination and violence against Black people. After caravanning south in 1971, a group of 500 were met at the edge of their new property by law enforcement: a mix of Mississippi Highway Patrol, FBI agents, and even Klan members, blocking access. After a tense standoff, law enforcement let the group pass, and they, their children, and new residents have been living and organizing ever since.
Jackson Rising is a collection of essays that document the work of Cooperation Jackson, a cooperative founded by some of those members and their children. Their work is expressed in the Jackson-Kush plan, an initiative that includes pursuing participatory democracy, solidarity economics, sustainable development, progressive community organizing, and electoral politics. They have run People’s Assemblies for residents in Jackson to develop solutions and strategies to address major issues in the city. They have elected two mayors and passed major funding initiatives. Unfortunately, the white power structures of Mississippi roadblock their work at every opportunity, but, despite this opposition, the community continues to grow its efforts. Jackson Rising documents their work up to publication, and includes plans for the future. On this list, it demonstrates a real-world daily struggle to bring Black self-determination and independence into existence.
Ellie Campbell (she/her) is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Law and Reference Librarian at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She holds an M.A. in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi, an M.A. in American Studies from King’s College London, and a J.D. and an M.L.I.S. from the University of Alabama. She is from Anniston, Alabama. Ellie tweets at @ecampbell535.
This review was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes on September 30, 2020 from a hard pitch; the author and editor had no prior acquaintance. No review copy was arranged by ARB.