Guide American Congo: The African American Freedom Struggle in the Delta

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American Congo — Nan Elizabeth Woodruff | Harvard University Press

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American Congo

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No longer does this heavily black, white-supremacist plantation region float in American and southern exceptionalism. Her Delta belongs to the colonized world of the twentieth century, rising and failing in rhythm with the colonies of Asia and Africa as a result of the same world wars. In the Delta as in other colonies, struggle proves long, but also fruitful. The digital Loeb Classical Library loebclassics. Our recent titles are available via Edelweiss. Visit our multimedia page for video about recent projects and interviews with HUP authors.

American Congo: The African American Freedom Struggle in the Delta

For Woodruff, however, the comparison between the Delta and the Congo extends beyond violence against people of color. The Delta and the Congo warrant close association, she argues, because colonial economic systems and political structures shaped labor and race relations in both places. Thus, while her primary aim is to shine new light on the depth and breadth of planter control in the Delta, and on the nature of African American resistance to it, she also seeks to locate the Delta in a broader colonial context.

Woodruff begins her study by exploring the origin of the alluvial empire, which is the name turn-of-the-century capitalists gave the Mississippi River Valley.

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She points out that the same formula that enabled western colonial expansion—foreign capital plus extractive agricultural industries plus coerced labor—gave rise in the Delta to a totalitarian regime controlled by a handful of wealthy hardwood and cotton plantation businessmen. As a result, the alluvial empire, by World War I, mirrored western colonial empires. Woodruff adds to this understanding with an insightful analysis of the ways African Americans in the Delta took advantage of war related economic opportunities to increase their quality of life.

She includes in this analysis a noteworthy treatment of African American resistance that makes clear how newly established branches of the NAACP provided African Americans in the Delta with alternative sources of political information that enabled them to escape isolation; NAACP branches also provided local people with new weapons with which to challenge white power. African American resistance to white power prompted plantation owners to resort to extreme violence to preserve the status quo. Also, in discussing the spark that ignited the massacre, she makes the important point that understanding the form and function of early black political activism requires careful consideration of African American social institutions, particularly Masonic orders.