John Ernest's elegant A Nation within a Nation offers the best short introduction to African American community formation during the pre-Civil War period. Ranging through religious, educational, political, literary, and social reform organizations, Ernest shows how African Americans conceptualized and practiced—indeed 'performed'—black group identity in response to whites' antiblack racism. An essential study that illuminates the historical origins of the community-building work of Barack Obama and other twentieth- and twenty-first-century African American leaders.
For most of the 19th century, African-American people—their culture, potential, and possibilities—were largely defined by non African-Americans. Despite efforts, at times dangerous and even illegal, to define themselves as a community, cultural cues were being written by whites and the African-American community had no way of distinguishing itself or dispelling persistent stereotypes. Writing in a straight-forward style, Ernest (Chaotic Justice), Distinguished Professor of American Literature at Western Virginia University, parses a great deal of historical material about African-American organizing around the Civil War, when the community sought to define itself with fraternal organizations, churches, mutual aid societies, educational groups, and newspapers. Ernest presents a meticulous history that shows the depth of community organization efforts, both in the North and the South, long before emancipation, which will likely surprise readers whose ideas about community organizing were formed during the last election, when Barack Obama made the phrase part of the American vernacular.