by Edward J. Blum
And, of course, it led me to reflect on two relatively new books that deal with making and marking communities. Conveniently enough, they were the ones I read on the journey. One was by the distinguished scholar Ira Berlin, and the other came from the pen of a much younger historian Richard A. Bailey. Both examine how communities make meaning of themselves, experience those meanings amid good and hard times, and mark their communities through ideas, actions, and commodities.
Ira Berlin is known to all U.S. historians. He’s the genius author of the magisterial book Many Thousands Gone, a beautiful and comprehensive history of the North American slave trade. Now in The Making of African America, Berlin examines how four great migrations – and the subsequent place-making between the movements – created and re-created black America. The Middle Passage transformed African ethnic and national groups into Africans in America. Then the internal slave trade to the Deep South drove a huge number of African Americans inland and created the “Cotton Belt” or “Black Belt.” The Great Migration of the early and mid-twentieth century shifted black America from southern and rural to northern and urban. And finally, the fourth migration of new immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa in the past thirty-five years brought in new groups of black Americans.
After each migration, black Americans made claims to space and place. They built families and homes; they formed coalitions and defined the land. They built churches, businesses, and cemeteries. Music reflected the moods of “routes and roots” – whether in spirituals, gospel hymns, the blues, or hip-hop.
And this is where Richard A. Bailey’s interesting book on race and puritans comes into play. In Race and Redemption in Puritan New England , Bailey moves historiographically in two contrary ways: first, when looking at slavery in early America, he examines the New England (not the South); second, when examining puritans, he highlights race (and not just faith). The contrary combination produces striking results. Bailey argues that as New England puritans tried to bring order to their new world of Native Americans, Africans, and slave labor practices, they built from their theological contradictions and paradoxes. The outcomes were new perspectives of race, redemption, and social order. Basically, Bailey argues that to reconcile their own theological problems amid a new form of society, puritans linked race and redemption.