Afro-Indigenous histories are central to the history of the United States, tribal sovereignty, and civil rights. Today, Dr. Kyle Mays (Saginaw Chippewa) author of An Afro-Indigenous History of the United States and Hip Hop Beats, Indigenous Rhymes: Modernity and Hip Hop in Indigenous North America, discusses the intersections of Black and Indigenous history through the lens of individuals whose lives existed at those intersections.
- Kyle MaysAssistant Professor of African American Studies, American Indian Studies, and History at UCLA
- Alina ScottPhD Candidate in the History Department at the University of Texas at Austin
You say in your introduction of your new book that you’ve been writing this book your whole life, can you talk a little bit more about what you mean by that?
Yes. So as you mentioned I am African American Saginaw Chippewa. Just briefly brief introduction. My great grandmother came from the second of Chippewa reservation that Isabella reservations called formally to Detroit in 1940 and then she married an african american man and they had nine afro digital Children and then I’m a product of that sort of lineage. So when I was a childhood in our family wasn’t a big, wasn’t really a big deal. And it’s not really until there’s really two instances that what I mean by that when I’ve been writing this my whole life, So my older brother used to powwow and being and and seeing in the pow circuit throughout Michigan and he had a book called Black Indians by William warren cats, who has just passed away in october of last year, but I was able to meet him right before he passed in new york a couple three years ago now. But so I saw this pile of books and I was like, I’ve never really seen this in literature growing up and I had certainly heard about the five tribes negotiated the five tribes, but that dominates discourse and discussion about who is, as we used to say back in the day of black indian. And so I was like, well, I wish I could read more about myself or see myself in some capacity. And really and the other thing was when I was looking at perspective graduate students, a very infamous black studies professor when he asked me what I wanted to do, I said, I’m looking I’m interested in looking at the relationship between the american indian movement, the black panther party issues around masculinity ideology, etcetera and stone face and confident, he said there is no relationship between the black panther party and the american indian movement. Now I was struck by that because it’s just not true. I mean, I had photos, I had done a little bit of research as an undergrad, so I knew like this dude was lying. And so um it got me like thinking more and more. I really need to write this sort of book not only as a reflection of my identity, but also exploring these issues as they relate to capitalism and colonialism, Right? Like What? How can we talk about these things? One outside of the five tribes in the 19th century enslavement. But also thinking about the relationship between colonialism, white supremacy and capitalism in a particular way? And thus, I’ve been unfortunate enough to write this book with the fantastic people at Beacon Press.
So I want to jump right into what you just mentioned, which is this kind of new way of thinking about afro indigenous history beyond the 19th century. So one of the key goals of this book does seem to be just that to expand these conversations about afro indigenous city and the intersections of blackness and indigenous city beyond enslavement that you do cover enslavement in this new book. But for those not familiar with what you mean, can you elaborate a little bit more about what this expanded afro indigenous methodology might look like.
So a few questions that I’m interested in exploring. And so a fancy word for indigenous deity for me often when well when people mention indigenously they’re often talking about land or how native nations in the U. S. And also beyond the U. S. Of course globally their relation to land there. The first peoples first Nations, the people who encountered european settlers. Right? And so for me in order to bring in people of african descent and even people on the african continent and the americans as well. And to discussions of indigenous deity like land can’t only be the thing that defines what it means to be indigenous. Again land is fundamental but it’s a fundamental not the fundamental and as a result I’m trying to expand this idea of indigenous city being about culture, spiritual practices, cosmologies etcetera. And that’s not to replace of course the indigenous peoples of North America. But if we consider the people of african descent that they didn’t just lose what it means to be indigenous right? They continued whether we want to look at something like black english or a V as it’s used social media also called ebonics back in the day as a combination of West african language and english in a certain way. Patois, the Americas throughout throughout the Americas as well in Jamaica in particular. If we consider those things as forms of indigenous cultural practices and um as Fanon would tell us a sort of way of thinking transformation that is then we have to deal with the question of when did these people of african descent lose their indigenous city. And my whole point is a sale where they didn’t on the one hand, right, I mean Sergeant Robinson and black marches um told us that they brought all these cosmologies, cultures, histories and ideas with them. And so for me, I’m trying to expand the very notion and idea of what indigenous city can be as an intellectual practice, as well as a practice on the ground and what people are doing in their everyday lives
kind of on that topic. The first couple of chapters of your book start before the civil war. Um, and so I want to talk about some of the key figures that you bring up in the pre revolutionary period. So like Quijano Phillis wheatley and paul Coffey. Can you talk a little bit about their stories and what they tell us about blackness and indigenous deity and black and indigenous history?
Yeah. So, you know, we learned about paul Cuffy Phillis wheatley and equi Otto throughout black history month as black. And what I’m trying to do in in this particular book is going back to what I was just discussing is, well, these are indigenous peoples who have been kidnapped on the one hand at least Cogliano and Phillis wheatley. Right, So, we know I feel a sweetly, really the first black person to publish poetry was so important that in Jefferson’s thomas Jefferson notes in the state of Virginia. He’s trying to throw shade at Phillis wheatley about that. She was unable to rate such fantastic poetry. There seems to be an ongoing thing in the U. S. History and in the contemporary that black women can’t do very fantastic things. I won’t get into that right now. But so weekly being an important person kidnapped as a things. He arrived in the Americas around six or seven years old at least what we know of. And her engagement with a particular minister Sammo comme a Mohegan minister who was they had corresponded and in the correspondent very brief about two or three times. But they tried to discussed like some of the relationships between what people of african descent were experiencing or Africans at the time and native peoples Mohegan peoples within as the U. S. Nation state is in its early development. Right? And so being an important person, one of the first narratives at least written by or told by an enslaved person. There’s a bit of controversy about whether it existed. For me that’s less important than it is that this story was out there. And there are a lot of verifiable facts even by evil people who say like no a lot of these things are pretty accurate and telling the horrors of the Middle passage or the slave trade. Right. And also so identifying very clearly his indigenous life before he was kidnapped. And to me that’s a very valuable thing as it relates to your pre revolutionary America and finally paul Cuffy. So he was a product of an afro indigenous relationship. Like one of the early first one if you will and typically he’s considered black in a certain way, but he’s wampanoag and his father was kidnapped and enslaved and brought to the Americas around I think six or seven as well. But he was a product of this afro african and north american will say indigenous relationship and he tried to form a town that was just for black and native folks. He ended up marrying a wampanoag woman and he tried to also found a all black town in Sierra Leone, it was unsuccessful, but he is very well documented within the british press as well as a, as a seafarer. So for me, collectively what they tell you is that there’s our afro addition, it’s people’s trying to come to terms with what they’re developing american society and also dealing with the ongoing nature of white supremacy at the time, like through deeply discussing their identity. So that’s why I really began with those particular stories in the book.
I think those stories were incredibly impactful for me and I’m sure they will be for our listeners who are maybe not necessarily used to thinking about these particular figures in those contexts.
And one final thing, I’m sorry, the other final important thing about that is that these are encounters between indigenous peoples, right? We so easily erase that these people were indigenous. That is the people coming from the african continent. And so what would it mean for us to say? These aren’t just african peoples or enslaved peoples, These are actually indigenous peoples encountering other indigenous peoples. And so I’m trying to push us to think what does that mean?
Absolutely. I think thinking about this indigenous city beyond the context of mixed nous and indigenous, the that is inherently black and I really appreciated that that moment in that chapter. My next question is about The 20th century. Um and so I want to talk about the civil rights era and the intersection of black and indigenous political struggles and goals in this context. So can you talk a little bit more about that?
Sure. So I want to begin with Vine Deloria, Jr the giant intellectual And so in Custer Died for Your Sins which came out in 1969, he has this very famous chapter called the black and the red and where indeed he discusses the key differences between black and native activism. And so in the chapter he basically says that and this persists well into the present. I’ve heard this probably 100 times whenever I’m doing a talk that black people are fighting for civil rights and native people are fighting for treaty rights. Now of course treaty rights are a foundational difference between that native people have over other people within the U. S. You also hear people say weird things that we are nations and not a race. And I’m like how can you therefore have like indians and your erasing whiteness is a whole another discussion. Uh and so Deloria and so I think a host of generations thereafter have reproduced what I call looking at these black and native relationships with the lens of Deloria that is focusing only on the key differences. But that flattens a lot of black radicals in history who wanted to question also the legitimacy of the U. S. Nation as a place where they could be citizens, right? And so for me, what I tried to show you, of course there were differences, but there were also folks like so could Carmichael who had changed his name to Kwame Monterey, the All African People’s Revolutionary Party influenced by Kwame Nkrumah and they’re trying to find common ground with native peoples. And so in a very important speech that Stokely Carmichael gave in ST. Paul Minnesota in 1975, he says that this is actually native peoples land, this is not my land, this is not black people’s land. And so if we’re gonna wage a struggle and be in solidarity with them, we have to center native peoples land, right? And for me as a very important point in U. S. History When you have prominent black activists articulating this particular point and he continued this notion well into the 1990s and so for that reason, climate becomes an important ally and its relationship to indigenous struggles in a way that a large majority of black activists. we’re not. And again, while they may have questioned the legitimacy of the U. S. As a settler democracy, none of them that maybe they thought, you know, this country should be destroyed in particular way or transformed, but none of them really were like, well this is native peoples land, right. And I think that is a crucial thing and why we should, you know, focus on even those um abnormalities within black politics and black struggle.
So because your book covers several centuries of history taking us from the revolutionary period to the civil rights era and ending in the present moment, how do you hope this work contributes to conversations about black and indigenous solidarity’s throughout us history?
Well, I want to have an honest conversation around like history, right? And so, you know, Audrey Lorde and learning from the 60s and essay uh says that anything worth doing on paraphrased anything worth doing is around solidarity should be difficult and hard. I think too often. Um even in recent in the last several years around and protests for black light, black humanity protests against pipelines. We assume solidarity and I don’t think we should assume solidarity between any T. O press group. That doesn’t make sense. That’s bad politics in general, Right. What are you struggling for? What are the conditions you might face in a particular way? And then how do you come together around particular issues? And I think is a better approach. And so my hope is a look at it. Native people have perpetuated anti blackness. Let’s not skirt that over. Black people have erased often within their own struggles. Native peoples. But how did they find a common ground? And what I’ve tried to tease out is they activists wanted a future free of white supremacy and settler colonialism. Right. In the fantastic documentary about Nina Simone, someone asked her what is freedom? And she said no fear, Right. And so to me, if we truly want some sort of freedom, we have to begin planning in the aftermath of colonialism and white supremacy. I’m tired of living in the afterlife of of enslavement and the ongoing forms of settler colonialism. But how can we project and start thinking about the aftermath and building these societies that we want, right, an indigenous and black future that exists without the burdens of racism and colonialism and capitalism? And so for me, I want to start engaging that conversation with other like minded peoples. And so you begin with history and then we have to project well into the present in the future.
So, my final question is and to close this episode, are there any stories in particular that you came across that you were surprised by or that you think would surprise our listeners.
I think the one story is probably Frederick Douglass. So he gives a speech I believe in um 1870 1879. And he’s talking to a group of native folks ironically and he’s saying you can’t be weak and you have you have to be strong. And it’s just kind of like I mean you know great grandpa Frederick Douglass, he doesn’t love Frederick Douglass right? But you see this sort of sentiments around anti native nous in a sense trying to construct like a black citizenship humanity. But then you’re using the so called weakness or engaging in these sorts of the vanishing Indian to perform this notion of black feature within a U. S. Democracy, right? And I I get it I I totally get it but that ain’t the way to do it. And I guess the other one is the Republic of New Africa. I found in Detroit in May of 1968. And the five you know southern states that they were like the U. S. Owes us this and they owe us $500 billion and the discourse on reparations that consist today. Do we want reparations under capitalism one and how can we have discussions of reparations without engaging in returning land to native peoples? And I’m curious to know and I’m not talking about the whole temporary but I’m curious to know like how this is going to play out and why can’t we engage these questions simultaneously.