Much of the work that we have engaged in since the 19th Century has been based on the idea that we can win in this country. The exodusters of the 19th Century migrated and built independent communities because they believed that we could create viable spaces for our selves in the midst of our enemies. The northern migrations of the late 19th to mid-20th Centuries were also based on the idea that the grip of White Supremacy would be a bit less constricting in the north and west. Even groups like the the Black Panthers, Us, the Congress of African People, and the Council of Independent Black Institutions engaged in their work with the idea that we could position ourselves to effect our will over our collective lives here.
While I find all of these examples and the many others not mentioned inspiring, I think that we need to consider the possibility that winning here may not be possible, or may not be worth the potential cost. What if Martin Delany was correct when he stated “Because even were it possible, with the present hate and jealousy that the whites have towards us in this country, for us to gain equality of rights with them; we never could have an equality of the exercise and enjoyment of those rights—because, the great odds of numbers are against us.”? Delany also queried when discussing the Fugitive Slave Law, “What can we do? What shall we do? This is the great and important question:—Shall we submit to be dragged like brutes before heartless men, and sent into degradation and bondage?—Shall we fly, or shall we resist? Ponder well and reflect.”
I think that many of us have taken the path of resistance. Fewer have chosen flight. What would a rigorous exploration of the present and potential efficacy of these paths reveal? If the intelligence of resistance is most reflected in the prospects for victory, does that remain possible here in the U.S.? Victory herein is not simply a matter of overcoming external oppositions, what Delany refers to as the forces allied against us, but also the psychologically debilitating malaise of oppression.
A child born under oppression, has all the elements of servility in its constitution; who when born under favorable circumstances, has to the contrary, all the elements of freedom and independence of feeling. Our children then, may not be expected, to maintain that position and manly bearing; born under the unfavorable circumstances with which we are surrounded in this country; that we so much desire. To use the language of the talented Mr. Whipper, “they cannot be raised in this country, without being stoop shouldered.”
Stated another way by Jacob H. Carruthers, “Our people are subjected to an educational process and content that, either by design or as an unavoidable byproduct, deforms most African minds”. This suggests that our present situatedness, even where it is characterized by resistance to oppression, occurs in an environment where the conditions which would enable victory are under constant assault.
This is not to suggest that flight, or emigration alone offers a panacea, rather to pose the need for a critical deliberation upon the problems and prospects associated with departure, not simply on the scale of individuals and families, but on the scale of a mass of people similar to the late 19th Century emigrationists. Herein a number of pertinent questions loom, many of the questions were anticipated by Delany over one hundred and fifty years ago.
Delany states “We love our country, dearly love her, but she don’t love us—she despises us, and bids us begone, driving us from her embraces; but we shall not go where she desires us; but when we do go, whatever love we have for her, we shall love the country none the less that receives us as her adopted children.” Thus we must ask the following queries: What destination offers optimal conditions for both the holistic development of African American emigrants, in addition to providing viable paths for them to contribute to the development of their new home?
In recognizing the seeming novelty of emigration as a political solution, Delany states
This may be acknowledged; but to advocate the emigration of the colored people of the United States from their native homes, is a new feature in our history, and at first view, may be considered objectionable, as pernicious to our interests. This objection is at once removed, when reflecting on our condition as incontrovertibly shown in a foregoing part of this work. And we shall proceed at once to give the advantages to be derived from emigration, to us as a people, in preference to any other policy that we may adopt.
Does the prospect of emigration contribute to enriching the discourse of African American empowerment, a discourse that is frequently impoverished by a lack of imagination and a failure to consider our embeddedness within a global African community?
Finally, to what may be the most pressing query–tutakwendapi?–where will we go? Reflecting on this, and prior to offering his own analysis of Africa, Canada, and the Americas south of the U.S. respectively Delany states, “This granted, the question will then be, Where shall we go? This we conceive to be all important—of paramount consideration, and shall endeavor to show the most advantageous locality; and premise the recommendation, with the strictest advice against any countenance whatever, to the emigration scheme of the so called Republic of Liberia.” The resolution of this query must be satisfied via rigorous assessment that is constrained within an overarching timeframe focused on achieving action, not incessant deliberation. To this end, the engagement of a community will be necessary who are capable of considering the myriad factors at play in such an endeavor.
In closing, I am not arguing that emigration is the singular path available to us. To the contrary, there may yet be domestic prospects available to us which I hope to outline in a future essay. Nonetheless, this is a path that is often not considered as a viable political strategy, an insufficiency that may constrain the totality of our vision.