Steven Hahn

A Nation Under our Feet

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A Nation Under our Feet Summary

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A Nation Under our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration is a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Steven Hahn. Published in 2003, this nonfiction book explores how African Americans transformed themselves, following decades of slavery, into a self-governing people with political mobility. Hahn, a professor of American History at the University of Pennsylvania, has authored many nonfiction books. Alongside the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for History, A Nation Under our Feet won the 2004 Merle Curti Award for Social History and was nominated for the 2004 Frederick Douglass Book Prize.

Hahn divides his book into three parts. The narrative moves chronologically, from the earliest aspirations for a fairer country to the Great Northern Migration following the Civil War and the Jim Crow laws. Hahn aims to show us the ways the African American community paved the way for its own improved future, by looking at organizations nonfiction books from the period often neglect, such as churches, fraternal associations, and communal bonds. Networking, literacy, and friendship prove critical to black political activity.

In the first part of A Nation Under our Feet, Hahn looks at the effectiveness of African American political resistance during the Civil War. His argument is that the black community was politically very active during this period and used unity to withstand white oppression, particularly from their former owners. For example, many perform their jobs slower than before, so they’re less productive, and they refuse to work harder without improved wages and autonomy.

This leads to a shift from slave labor to wage-based labor. Some even go so far as to take over abandoned plantations, refusing to work for their former masters. Although these uprisings lead to increased tensions between the white oppressors and black workers, it’s inevitable that, from this point onwards, things can never go back to how they were.

African American political activity continues to grow, becoming more cohesive and organized. They take part in marches and rallies, demand representation and protest discrimination. Hahn highlights the importance of the free Northern black community, and its increasingly sophisticated political structure, which leads to communication and the forming of vital networks across the U.S.

In the book’s second part, Hahn looks more closely at the reconstruction of the U.S. from shortly after the Civil War to around 1877. What’s important about this period is how the blacks who fought during the War receive some training in politics and literacy. This means they’re able to communicate effectively and rally others around them. Installing African Americans into positions of power at the local level, from Hahn’s perspective, is one of the most important political developments of the period, as these individuals prove themselves to be just as competent as their white counterparts. For example, in 1870, Hiram R. Revels becomes the first African American to serve in a chamber of US Congress.

However, militant and violent extremist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, grow in power at the same time, as many white oppressors and supremacists are unhappy at the changing political landscape. It’s necessary, then, for the black community to also become more militant to defend itself, leading to a vicious circle of hate and violence. Once black males receive suffrage in the Confederate states, the hatred only intensifies. KKK leaders try to say they’re only acting to defend themselves against rising black violence, justifying the white supremacist political agenda.

The third part of the book looks at what happens from around 1878 onwards. Whites are divided over the empowerment of the black community, and blacks forge alliances with white supporters. It’s at this point that population movement becomes critical to the further development of the African American community.

Southern blacks find opportunities in the Northern states, and they move away from the old plantations and households. This places a strain on the South, which is forced to make some degree of political concessions. However, the tensions within the white community and the anger at the loss of slave labor lead to what become known as the Jim Crow laws. These laws enforce segregation and prevent the black and white communities from networking in the South. Segregation includes separate restrooms, parks, cafes, and buses. The networks that are already formed, however, survive these laws.

It’s thanks to the Great Northern Migration, which takes place between 1915 and 1930, that the black community retains its political gains, spreading its message across the whole of the U.S. This moving population knows how to mobilize and make political allegiances; it understands what it wants to achieve and is educated enough to make it happen. Although the labor shortage caused by World War I makes it easier for blacks to move North, its thanks to their own political ingenuity and mobilization that they make lasting changes to history.