The ways Afro-Indigenous people are asked to navigate their communities

Two leading scholars discuss the complex relationship between Black and Native people.

 

African American history and Native American history have long been considered kindred by those who see the original sin of the United States as twofold, a dual theft by European settlers: the taking of Indigenous lives and land, and the seizure of Black bodies and labor. Both groups suffered the loss of language, culture and freedom.

There are many ways the two peoples’ histories have overlapped since they first came into contact over 500 years ago. In African American popular culture, those early interactions often take the form of romanticized tales: Native people working with Black people to battle the colonial system, or a Native ancestor who sheltered runaway slaves and bequeathed her long straight Black hair to her descendants. But there are others who seek to center Black lives by overlooking the shared historical experiences of the two groups and ignoring the modern-day Native encounter with issues of poverty, racism and police violence. Meanwhile, in many Native American communities, African Americans are viewed through a prejudicial lens similar to the kind that many white Americans use: as a people who may have been hurt by racism through enslavement, at one point, but who refuse to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, as it were.

The real history between African Americans and Native Americans is complex and requires acknowledging both the times and places in which they joined together to resist oppression as well as the times they participated in that oppression. It’s these deep complexities that shape the ideas Black and Native people have of one another today.

Kyle T. Mays (left) and Alaina E. Roberts.

I am part of a new crop of scholars who explore this history from the perspective of being a people of mixed-race heritage. My own book, I’ve Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021), used my family’s memories of being enslaved by and related to Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians to tell the story of Black, Native and white settlement in what is now the state of Oklahoma. My research and my daily life are shaped by the fact that people with my background are not yet accepted by the Chickasaw or Choctaw Nations as tribal citizens, despite treaty promises to the contrary.

Historian Kyle T. Mays is different. Both his African American and Saginaw Chippewa communities welcome him, and his relatives have had a hand in shaping the dissemination of Afro-Indigenous education. His aunt, Judy Mays, even founded the Medicine Bear American Indian Academy in Detroit, a public school with a curriculum focused on Native American and Black history and culture. Mays opens his new book, An Afro-Indigenous History of the United States (Beacon Press, 2021) by framing his personal identity as crucial to his understanding of historical knowledge and the gaps therein. In his home and in his life, Native American and Black lifeways were communicated as the interconnected story they are. Why wasn’t this the case for other academics and writers? Mays has set out to rectify this.

As two of the still-rare Afro-Indigenous historians who study their own communities, Kyle and I have crossed paths before. But when we sat down, via Zoom, for this conversation, I wanted to know more than I’d heard from him previously. I wanted him to speak about how he has seen the Native “community” split time and time again over anti-Blackness. And I wanted to know who the audience for his book is: Black and Native folks who want to see a certain story told, or white Americans hoping for their next social justice creed.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Alaina E. Roberts: Congratulations on your book! I was very glad to read it.

In our field of Black-Native history, there are people like you and I, who write from our positions as members of the groups we study. So I wanted to start by asking you: Do you feel that being part of the group that you’re writing about produces academic work that asks questions, or seeks answers, that are only legible through this positionality?

Kyle T. Mays: I don’t think that just because you’re X person, you can write a better history. On the other hand, I do think being an Afro-Indigenous person gives you a neat perspective about how to approach (this work). It’s not always just going to these archives as historians and then finding these answers, and then writing about it. Because you also have deep commitments to people. Even if you’re not writing about particular subjects, you still feel a responsibility to try to represent these histories equally. So what I try to do is what many of us try to do as historians; (I ask) what are some of the best stories to tell? And how do I tell these stories to an audience that can appreciate them? So whether you’re a white person, a Native person, an Afro-Indigenous person or none of those, you can still relate to and think about how these particular histories intersect within a broader understanding of U.S. democracy. That’s kind of how I tried to approach this book.

Even if you’re not writing about particular subjects, you still feel a responsibility to try to represent these histories equally. 

AR: Reading your book, I felt like you were talking to me and Afro-Indigenous people like me. But this is a trade press book, so you’re also talking to a broader white audience as well, right?

KM: There’s really two audiences: Afro-Indigenous peoples like ourselves, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the people who might not question what U.S. democracy is. Is it legitimate? Is it legitimate in its relationship to settler colonialism? It’s for those people to (begin to) question that. And if we question that, where do we go and what do we think about from there? For me, it’s a future that requires legitimating the criticisms by Black and Native people historically and today, and allowing them to reimagine how society can function in the future.

AR: In the book, you examine case studies that you describe as “unexpected,” so not necessarily the Five Tribes — the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole Nations — which I agree are probably the most written about in this vein. And you’re demonstrating how the twin oppressions of anti-Blackness and settler colonialism have been, as you call them, “a central site through which racial and gender formations have occurred in the United States.” You start in the 1700s, with people like Phillis Wheatley and Paul Cuffee, and you draw a through line going forward to our modern day. In your first book, Hip Hop Beats, Indigenous Rhymes: Modernity and Hip Hop in Indigenous North America, you are more focused on the modern day, but you’ve also written about the early 20th century in various articles. So, with a deeper look at the past, as you do in this book, do you see the same sorts of struggles for Afro-Indigenous peoples historically and today?

No matter where I go in the world, I just am a Black person to people, and I’m cool with that because I know who I am. But that’s a result of white supremacy.

KM: Some of the similarities certainly are dealing with being pulled in two different directions because of an outside force … like (today), we live in a white supremacist society, and they lived in a white supremacist society. And because of that, they were labeled as Black, even though they might have had different identities. … And that’s something that exists in the present: No matter where I go in the world, I just am a Black person to people, and I’m cool with that because I know who I am. But that’s a result of white supremacy.

And, frankly, being discriminated against by Native people — “How legitimate are you?” — I  think that’s a through line historically (and) into the present.

AR: There’s this refrain that I’ve often heard from some Black people: “Why do you not want to be Black? Why are you trying to find this kind of other more interesting or exotic identity that apparently is not ours to claim?” And the idea of this kind of necessary separation between Black and Native people is present historically. Like when you talk in your book about Frederick Douglass or James Baldwin, these people who we think of as Black radicals and important Black leaders who use anti-Native sentiment to promote Black progress or Black migration. How do you explain this relationality between Black and Native people?

KM: It pains me to write those things. I love our uncle, James Baldwin, and our great-grandfather, Frederick Douglass. Who doesn’t, right? They were great advocates for Black people, and I think there’s a lot to say about the contributions they made overall. But they also used these ideas of Black progress as based on Native erasure, or the constant talk of genocide or the so-called backwardness of Native people to project this idea of a Black future (and) … you can’t do that if all of us are supposed to be going to the same future.

One of the challenges I’ve had, ironically, is … I was always like, “Oh, there’s some non-Black Native people who really love what I’m doing when I make these critiques.” And I’m always skeptical when they get a little bit too much praise. And I’m like, “Why do you like this? Is it because you want to engage in some anti-Blackness? Are you trying to make sure we have a shared future?” It got me thinking — maybe I have to curtail some of the criticisms in a certain way. Not that they’re not legitimate. But I’ve now had to think about how people are taking my work. And once it’s out there, it is what it is. But the point is not to just say James Baldwin or Frederick Douglass is trash; it’s to say, “Let’s just look out for some of these issues that can happen, so we don’t continue the erasure of Native peoples.”

“Let’s just look out for some of these issues that can happen, so we don’t continue the erasure of Native peoples.”

AR: I talk about Frederick Douglass in my book as well. And yeah, that’s always something that is commented on: People are always surprised, people are always so disappointed. … But I use it to show that it’s part of this mindset that everyone is buying into at this point in time, and Black people are not somehow outside of that.

KM: Exactly! Right. They’re trying to get their own freedom. And I can only imagine what it was like to be under slavery. You hear all these white supremacist things, as well. … You adopt them, and you’re still trying to get respect for your humanity and also freedom. How do you do that? Well, you think, “These (white) people talk trash about Native peoples. Let me do that, too.” And it’s like, well, you don’t have to do that. Or let’s just slay these people to show that we’re civilized so we can keep our land. You don’t have to do that either! So it’s a weird conundrum that it’s hard to get out of whether I’m in a barbershop or wherever. … You still hear the same nonsense today.

AR: I’m imagining you having these kinds of conversations in a barbershop. … Do you really?!   

KM: Oh, yeah. It goes from sports talk to, you know, someone asks you what you do. I try to keep it simple, but they often keep pressing. …

AR: What do you feel Indian Country can do to make progress toward accepting Afro-Indigenous people?

KM: Well, I think a lot of the non-Afro-Indigenous Native folks have a lot of work to do amongst themselves. I don’t think it’s always our burden, our job, to be like, “Yo, y’all gotta stop being anti-Black.” And, you know, because of the social media performances around it, who knows if it’s legitimate or not. … I’ve just seen a lot of nasty stuff on these sorts of tribal social media spaces.

Why can’t we just get some elders together, and some young people, and let’s just sit down and talk? The conversation can be moderated by whomever, it doesn’t have to be on camera. There’s so much vitriol, though, that it can be very difficult to even do that. People just don’t want to admit they’re playing what people call the “Oppression Olympics.” Who cares about who has what worse? What are some of our goals? And how do we want to get our collective freedom?      

Alaina E. Roberts is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh, and the author of I've Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land.

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