For Howard Dodson, one of the foremost experts on African American history, the election of President Barack Obama was not just a momentous occasion for blacks in America, but for people throughout the entire African diaspora.
The shared experiences of people of African descent is what led Dodson, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, to write Becoming American: The African American Journey, a dual chronology tracing Africans through both global and American history.
Dodson spoke with BlackEnterprise.com‘s Marcia A. Wade about the African American relationship to American democracy and the parallels one can draw from the experiences of blacks in America and abroad.
BlackEnterprise.com: How did you come up with the title Becoming American? Would you say that African Americans are, in fact, now Americans?
Howard Dodson: I thought about a group of black people gathering in New York in 1831 to talk about their Americanness and to affirm themselves as Americans. At exactly the same time that that happened there were very strong political initiatives by both friends and foes of African Americans to convince the free black population to move to Africa. Their position was that they were born and their parents were born in this country, that they had worked to make the country what it was, and they had, at times, gone to fight on behalf of the country. And therefore they were as much Americans as anybody else who had stepped off the boat in the 1820s or 1830s, and they had no intention of going anywhere.
How did you determine what features would best illuminate the journey of Africans to becoming American citizens?
Some things are foundational. You can’t really talk about the African American experience without talking about the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution itself. You can’t talk about the African American experience without dealing with the Emancipation Proclamation, etc.
Some of the others were chosen because they speak to specific moments in history, but more importantly are actually interrogating the African American relationship to American democracy and our status as citizens in this country.
Why was it important to place African American history into the context of global history?
In this book, I try to position the African American experience in the context of what was going on globally, especially in the black world. Sometimes the relationship between an event in the United States and one in the Caribbean is not a direct and linear one, but they may in fact be brought on by the same kind of political and social forces.
It is my hope that, as African Americans go through the timeline, it will create some expanded notion of their place in the world and of their relationship to the world.
What would you say is the relevance of this book in regard to the world witnessing the election of the first American president of African descent?
I consider Barack Obama’s election the fullest affirmation by the United States of the Americaness of African