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American History as North American and African Diaspora History

My JAH article “Bridging Borders,” much like my book Cross-Border Cosmopolitans: The Making of a Pan-African North America (UNC Press, 2023), is concerned with a fundamental historiographical question: How can historians in the twenty-first century reimagine American and African American history in a way that is attuned to the dynamics and complexities of the African Diaspora?

Autographed postcard of Tuskegee Airman Yenwith Kelly Whitney of the 301st Squadron in his P-51 Mustang, circa 1944. Courtesy of Dr. Saundra Curry.

Ohio-born J. R. B. Whitney with his Windsor-born bride and educator Ada Kelly Whitney circa 1919. Courtesy of Dr. Sheldon Taylor.

On the cover of the June 2023 issue of the JAH is a picture of Tuskegee fighter pilot Yenwith Whitney seated in his P-51 Mustang. Whitney was born in the Bronx in 1924. He was a quintessential diasporic African—or “African North American”—whose cross-border ties and citizenship transcended the United States, Canada, and West Africa. His father was an African American from Ohio who became the Race Man in Canada during the Great War. From Toronto, Whitney’s father published the leading Black newspaper, organizing the community and mustering troops for the war effort. Believing in the unity of African peoples, he was instrumental in forging connections among African Americans, African Canadians, and African Caribbean immigrants. Whitney’s Windsor, Ontario-born mother descended from African Americans who sought refuge in Canada via the Underground Railroad. After attending teacher’s college across the river in Detroit, she taught as the first Black educator in the Windsor area. The couple emigrated from Toronto to New York City days after the 1919 Red Summer.

The twentieth century was a North American century, insofar as Black people in the United States, Canada, and Caribbean strengthened their cross-border, continental, and transatlantic ties with their African counterparts. Currents of Garveyism and other forms of revolutionary Pan-Africanism in the inter-war period, such as African American soldiers and pilots volunteering to defend Ethiopia from Fascist Italy’s 1935 invasion, influenced a young Whitney who came of age in New York City. In 1924 Harlem, for example, Garveyite aviator Hubert F. Julian christened his would-be transatlantic flight Ethiopia I, three years before Charles Lindbergh traversed the Atlantic. Trinidadian-born, Julian claimed to have trained under Canada’s First World War ace Billy Bishop before relocating to the United States. The Black Eagle, as Julian was affectionately called, became a folk hero to many in New York City and the African World. He led Ethiopia’s air force during the 1935 war. Whitney, too, pilgrimaged in Africa. From 1958 to 1967, he lived in Cameroon with his wife Muriel and daughters Saundra and Karen, teaching math and physics.

As a historian of the United States and African Diaspora in the Atlantic World, I have found that North America (including the Caribbean) was the principal historical site for global Black self-identification and Black liberation. The answers to forging a new direction in American history have, in part, always been on this continent. In more ways than I could have ever anticipated, my upbringing in Canada and the United States and my personal connections to West Africa have influenced my analytical sensibilities, allowing me to appreciate North America as the most important geographical variable shaping American and African American history.

I was born on ancestral lands in a place called Teshie along the Gulf of Guinea in Ghana. Beginning in the seventeenth century, my forebears named their immediate environs “the Belly of the Beast,” or, in the Gã language, Klé Musun. The name alluded to the fierce competition, trial by fire, and indomitable will needed to overcome one of the most protracted and seismically disruptive crimes against humanity: transatlantic slavery. During the rise of the Atlantic World, African states and empires mobilized and warred, defending their territory from other Africans and the European empires that had acquired an insatiable appetite for Black flesh. The latter fueled a genocidal commerce. These interactions, as a result, heightened notions of ethnic boundaries (i.e., African linguistic and cultural identities) and “race” (i.e., African vis-à-vis European). Atlantic Africans who endured the Middle Passage acquired acute understandings of race and racial terror in the Americas. Those who remained on the continent, like my immediate kin, had a limited or underdeveloped understanding of race, although they could speak the politics of ethnicity endlessly.

I didn’t understand race until I immigrated to Canada as a child, growing up among African Canadians and Black people from the Caribbean. Meeting African Americans within the North American social milieu—and eventually moving to the United States to pursue my doctorate—sharpened my awareness of the race-ethnicity nexus in the African Diaspora. For these reasons, one question has inspired my research and analysis more than any other in the last decade: How and why did African peoples in the Americas, especially in the United States, come together to imagine and create a cross-border, continental community with transatlantic ties in twentieth-century North America?

Survival.

Race First.

Survival from white domination necessitated race-first thinking, that is, racial unity. Racial unity augured liberation. Liberation meant mobility, crossing borders, a global cosmopolitan Black community.

It is easy to overlook the fact that Africans are a “cosmopolitan people,” according to George Washington Williams, the reputed father of African American history. Africans whom enslavers trafficked to the Americas came from multilingual, multicultural, and religiously syncretic communities, states, or empires. The dilemmas of Indigenous dispossession and chattel enslavement of Africans in colonial North America contributed to a dynamic where, notwithstanding the quasi regional or national ethnic cleavages that existed during slavery, African peoples recognized the advantages of a continental and hemispheric Black racial solidarity against white domination. Therefore, it behooves historians of the United States and the African American past to employ a continental framework in their analysis. African North America is a gateway to a new synthesis of American—and African Diaspora—history.

When conducting archival research on specialized topics like African North Americans, seldom—if ever—does one stumble upon a box or folder so fortuitously named. Although investigation and the connection of seemingly disparate dots are the historian’s avocation, valuable primary sources, such as letters, ephemera, pictures, newspaper clippings, organizational minutes, and census material remain in private Black hands.

Letter from Ontario Prime Minister Sir William Hearst. Courtesy of Dr. Sheldon Taylor.

Elders are usually keepers of the most precious historical documents in Black communities where some reticence remains about safeguarding precious material within non-Black institutions. Dr. Saundra Curry, Yenwith Whitney’s daughter, shared with me the picture of her father seated in his P-51 Mustang. Dr. Sheldon Taylor granted me access to his own private collection, which contained a never-before published picture of Whitney’s parents and correspondence between his Ohio-born father and some of the most powerful men in Canada during the Great War.

Elders are also a literal embodiment of the archive. When researching Cross-Border Cosmopolitans, oral history revealed more than I could have anticipated about the border crossing, diasporic, and transnational worlds of twentieth-century Black folk. Indeed, it was oral history that shattered my preconceptions of how inter-war Black people, especially working- and middle-class Black women, defied and disrupted gender norms.

Beulah Cuzzens’s story, one of what I call “a collage of pan-African micro-biographies” in my JAH article, is an excellent example. Cuzzens was born 1907 in Chatham, Ontario, a terminus of the Underground Railroad near Detroit. Her patrilineal ancestors came to Canada as fugitives from American slavery. Coming of age in the mid-1920s, Cuzzens taught in a segregated school on weekdays, and on weekends drove with her girlfriends to Great Lakes cities, such as Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, and Rochester.

Cuzzens and her girlfriends had siblings and other relatives who lived in these U.S. cities, where they tapped into a vibrant network of jazz greats, athletes, preachers, and hustlers. “We always had some place to go [in U.S. border cities]…. We met anybody who was anybody,” she exclaimed. When her friends Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, Pearl Bailey, and others crossed the border into Windsor, they lodged with Cuzzens and her husband Earle, an African American expat born in West Virginia. So, too, did her friend and business partner Joe Louis, the heavy weight boxing champ. Hosting African American friends ensured dignity for visitors whom Canadian hotels would have unflinchingly—and unironically—Jim Crowed.

During the Great Depression, Cuzzens worked in the “numbers” industry, that is, the African American underground lottery run by policy kings, such as her friends the Jones brothers. The brothers were beloved and feared bosses in Black Chicago who went toe-to-toe with the Italian mafia. Beyond the caricature of Victorian-aspiring women confined to the church or the home or tepid social clubs, Black women like Cuzzens and her peers revealed the frailty of gender norms in a borderlands setting, where race and racial unity bridged borders and provided new ways to imagine diaspora, freedom, and belonging.

Students from School Section #11 in Ontario, 1948, where Cuzzens taught. Post-Confederation, Ontario was one of two provinces that legislated segregated Black schools under Chapter 368 of the 1850 Separate Schools Act. Black politicians and parents overturned this legislation in 1965. Courtesy of Harrow Early Immigrant Research Society, accessed on August 3, 2023 from tvo.org.

Twentieth-century global Black liberation movements began within the U.S.-Canadian borderlands as cross-border, continental struggles. Scrutinizing this dynamic will allow historians of the United States and African American past to uncover the deep social history and elided revolutionary legacies of the Underground Railroad and America’s Great Migration and the hemispheric and transatlantic dimensions of this history.

Beulah Cuzzens, Yenwith Whitney, and countless African North Americans defined twentieth-century U.S. Black liberation. They epitomized the local and global. The Great Lakes region was not simply a U.S.-Canadian border zone, but a demilitarized hemispheric and global racial checkpoint for diasporic Africans who navigated the North American mainland, the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa. Without my own intimate transatlantic experiences that crisscrossed the U.S.-Canadian border, I would not have fully appreciated my historical actors, many of whom lived quintessentially African diasporic, transnational, and cosmopolitan lives.

Wendell Nii Laryea Adjetey (Nii Laryea Osabu I, Atrékor Wé Oblahii kè Oblayéé Mantsè) is William Dawson Chair and assistant professor of U.S. and African Diaspora history at McGill University. Author of Cross-Border Cosmopolitans: The Making of a Pan-African North America (UNC Press, 2023), his current book projects examine gender and twentieth-century revolutionary Black leadership in the United States, and nineteenth-century African warfare along the Gulf of Guinea Coast.

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