Past Imperfect: Outkasts and Indians
By William Jelani Cobb
History, according to a wise source of mine, is five minutes ago. And that bond between minutes past and centuries long gone came to mind last month when viewing the now-infamous Outkast performance at the Grammy Awards. Before the smoke signals had settled, charges of racism and minstrelsy were already beginning to swirl. Indigenous groups charged the duo with objectifying Native Americans, disrespecting sacred regalia and demeaning their historic cultures.
In short, redface. Image may not be everything, but it is a whole lot of things and the Native American groups have a right to be concerned with how their cultures are depicted.
On its face, minstrelsy is ethnic exaggeration for popular consumption, a kind of caricature that works best when those being ridiculed are marginalized and disempowered.
In laughing at the profane Sambos conjured up in the 19th century, whites were essentially affirming their shared status as Americans. That these charges were being leveled at a group of black artists — given the history of blackface caricature and racial stereotypes that still loom in our collective memory — is bitterly ironic.
But not all that surprising.
The enslavement of Africans was fueled by the diminishing Native American populations and the constant need for new labor to exploit.
In the crucible of American history, Africans and Native Americans share a kindred experience. And given that fact, there is a long history of black-Native American interaction, cooperation and intermarriage.
(The long-standing racial cliché about black people claiming to be "part Indian" is not solely an attempt to avoid one's African ancestry: by some estimates, at least one-third of African Americans have Native American roots.)
And we should bear in mind that grits, that staple of black-southern cuisine, began as a Native American cereal, not an African one. But this is not an entirely pretty history — as few are. If anything, last month's display at the Grammy's fits into an equally long tradition of conflict and contempt between these two groups whose treatment of each other has often mirrored the very prejudices they both suffered from.
The exploitation and oppression of Native Americans and Africans was a fundamental building block of not only the United States, but to varying degrees all the nations of North and South America. The European colonization of the alleged New World brought with it the subjugation, enslavement and decimation of the land's indigenous inhabitants. In Columbus' correspondence to the Spanish crown, he simultaneously commented on the generosity and hospitality shown to him by Native Americans and marveled at how few soldiers he would require to subdue and enslave them. In the Caribbean, groups like the Arawak and Caribs were literally wiped out by European military campaigns, diseases and the labor conditions imposed upon them.
In the early 16th century, Bartolome de Las Casas, a Catholic Bishop from Spain, began to intercede on the behalf of the indigenous populations, making the paradoxical argument that their treatment was so inhumane and un-Christian, that Africans should be enslaved instead. In large measure, the enslavement of Africans by Europeans was facilitated and fueled by the diminishing Native American populations and the constant need for new labor to exploit. In the first four centuries after Columbus arrival, nearly three-quarters of the people arriving in North and South America were Africans — often replacing the indigenous labor that was rapidly being eradicated.
During the colonial era, fugitive slaves often fled south into Florida and set up maroon communities among Native American populations there. In exchange, they brought with them the West African rice cultivation techniques that contributed to sustaining the Seminole population (and had been the primary reason that South Carolina became a rice-growing colony). The Seminole tradition of giving asylum to black fugitives was, in fact, a motivating factor in General Andrew Jackson's invasion of Florida in 1819. In the 1830s, President Jackson's policy of Indian Removal — which led to the famed Trail of Tears — was partially driven by the demands of white slaveholders that they be able to retrieve their black "property" from Florida. The Seminole leader Osceola — whose wife was the daughter of a fugitive slave — famously refused to allow any blacks or black-Indians to be reenslaved. It was not uncommon during colonial-era raids for Native American populations to attack whites, but not the enslaved Africans inhabiting the same settlements. And most notably, black warriors fought fiercely alongside their Native American allies during the Seminole Wars of resistance between 1835 and 1842.
But neither group was wholly immune to the prevailing currents of thought regarding the other. As early as 1676, black indentured servants joined their white counterparts in the raids against Native Americans organized by Nathaniel Bacon. Attacking both allied and hostile nations indiscriminately, "Bacon's Rebellion" vastly amplified the general climate of suspicion toward Native Americans in the Virginia colony. (When colonial officials intervened, Bacon turned his forces against them and succeeded in temporarily unseating the British appointed Governor, making the point that it was safer to have poor whites despise Native Americans than the white colonial elite.)
Recognizing the potential problems that African-Native American alliances might create, the British encouraged slaveholding among the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw and Chickasaw nations, and even some Seminoles came to participate in the institution. On the verge of the Civil War, the Cherokees allied themselves with the Confederate cause. Given their status as "domestic sovereign nations" within the United States, the Cherokees may have had some sympathy for the banner of "states' rights" that unified the seceding Southern territories. Still, the protection of the institution of slavery cannot be dismissed as a factor in the decision to cast their lot along with the Confederates. (And after the close of the Civil War, emancipation of those slaves held by Native Americans proved a complex matter, as tribal leadership cited their sovereign status in claiming exemption from the Emancipation Proclamation.)
In the years following the Civil War, the regiments in which black soldiers fought were re-organized as the 9th and 10th cavalries — better known as the "Buffalo Soldiers." The cavalries served with distinction — guarding the railroads, handling the treacherous business of escorting the mail and fighting in border skirmishes with the Mexican forces; but they also participated in the Indian Wars, serving as military reinforcement of the United States long-standing policies of treaty-violation and subjugation of Native American populations. Yet another irony is seen in the fact that these black soldiers often served under racist white commanding officers. Later, the histories of African and Native Americans would find themselves intertwined within the historically black college system when Hampton Institute served as a normal school aiding in the so-termed "civilization" of Native American youth.
In the postbellum world, Southern states sought to reinscribe white supremacy through black codes and Jim Crow laws, which found their sanction in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision. Among Cherokees — who had been forcibly relocated to Oklahoma — this policy found an unfortunate echo. Blacks who had come west with the Cherokees were segregated from the indigenous populations; black freedman were allotted less land than their Native American counterparts, grouped into internal homelands and, as early as 1907, were being sent to separate schools.
Most recently, the descendants of African Americans who were enslaved by the Seminoles filed suit against the tribal leadership, which sought to exclude them from sharing in the lucrative legal settlement they had won against the United States. At the heart of this issue was the question of whether or not the enslaved had ever truly been members of the Seminole nation — a question that has been asked, in different contexts involving black people, for the last four centuries on these shores. Those kinds of conflicts — in conjunction with Outkast's performance — remind us that the past has a way of creeping into the right-now. None of us are immune to racism, all of us have excluded others as a means of including ourselves, and five minutes is far longer than we've ever thought.
About the Author
William Jelani Cobb is an assistant professor of history at Spelman College and editor of The Essential Harold Cruse.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his website at www.jelanicobb.com.