“If we have African blood we should be proud of it; it is good, honest, tribal ancestry.” —Jack D. Forbes, Attan-Akamik Newsletter, 1974
“The Future of Minority Studies Conference” held February 24 – 27, 2011, at the College of William and Mary brought together a diverse group of academics from across many disciplines to explore the theme “Subjugated Histories/Decolonizing Practices.” Its aim was to challenge “the hegemony of Western Knowledge/power systems… and to explore epistemic decolonization.” This would relocate the study of marginalized communities, “from margin to center,” to use the words of Afro-Indian cultural critic bell hooks.
I returned home from that exhilarating conference to learn that my mentor and friend Jack D. Forbes, Professor Emeritus of Native American Studies at the University of California Davis, had walked on a day prior to the conference on February 23, 2011. Forbes, who was of Powhatan-Renape/Delaware-Lenape descent, worked tirelessly as a renowned author, activist, and academic to uncover the subjugated histories of marginalized peoples by embracing the “bottom up” approach to American history also embraced by many late twentieth century academics.
At the time of his death, many paid tribute to Forbes and his illustrious academic career, which spanned over five decades. Such tributes were primarily focused on his contributions to the field of Native American Studies. Yet, Forbes’s contributions extended far beyond this discipline. His commitment to interdisciplinarity, which incorporated best practices from the disciplines of history, anthropology, linguistics, sociology, and literature enabled him to transverse disciplinary boundaries with ease. His passion for examining the nuances and complexities of the early European and later the American racial project broadened his research interest beyond Native American Studies to include Latin American Studies and African American Studies. Regarding the latter, Forbes’s contribution to African American scholarship went unmentioned by those memorializing an illustrious life now gone; we must correct this gross oversight. Hence, on this third anniversary of his passing and in commemoration of African American Heritage Month, I believe it is fitting that we pause and pay tribute to the legacy of Jack D. Forbes whose life work celebrated the confluence of African and Native peoples of the Americas.
After completing a doctorate in History and Anthropology at the University of Southern California in 1959, Forbes went on to help establish the Native American Studies Program at the University of California Davis and other universities. His 1966 publication An American Indian University: A Proposal for Survival helped to build the momentum of the tribal college movement and gave rise to D-Q University in 1972, the first American Indian college in California and the second tribal college in the nation. As a result of Forbes’s unyielding commitment to indigenizing the academy, today there are approximately 35 tribal colleges, which are responsible for the enrollment of at least one-third of the post-secondary American Indian population in addition to numerous Native American Studies departments and programs nationwide.
In the same year that Forbes published his influential American Indian university proposal, he also published an educational handbook and a journal article, which focused on African Americans in the American West. Afro-Americans in the Far West: A Handbook for Educators provided a historical overview of people of African descent in the American West who first accompanied Spanish explorers on their discovery expeditions 80 years prior to their introduction to the British colony of Virginia in 1619. The handbook provided educational guidelines and recommendations for developing a curriculum focused on African American migration and contributions to the western region. An annotated bibliography comprised of 300 resources concluded the handbook.
This publication was followed by “Black Pioneers: The Spanish Speaking Afroamericans of the Southwest,” a journal article which examined the contributions of peoples of African or part African descent to the Spanish expansion which began in the early quarter of the sixteenth century in the southwest regions of Central Mexico, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma. Forbes noted:
“…many different kinds of Africans participated in the expansion of the Spanish Empire including olive-skinned North Africans and darker West Africans. In addition to these persons there were many Spaniards of part-African ancestry, a heritage of the earlier Muslim conquest of Spain, and more recent Spanish-Negro and Indian-Negro hybrids from Haiti, Borinque (Puerto Rico), Cuba and Jamaica.”
Forbes’s crowning achievement, however, was arguably in the area of African-Native American intersections. Africans and Native Americans: The Language of Race and the Evolution of Red- Black Peoples (1995), which appeared in print a year after his retirement from UC Davis, is viewed by many as Forbes’s signature work. This monumental work, the result of two decades of research, set a new standard in the study of African–Native American relations. It is required reading for any student or scholar interested in the subject. Some have gone so far as to refer to it as the “Bible” of African–Native American Studies. The first two chapters demonstrated Forbes’s meticulous research into the inter-continental contacts between peoples of African and Native American descent prior to the sixteenth century, which included contacts brought about as a result of the African and Indian slave trades.
The remainder of the book explored the etymology of terms such as “Negro,” “mulatto,” “Moor,” “Black,” and “person of color” and demonstrated fluidity of racial categories and their usage over time. Forbes traced the definitions and usages of these terms as used by Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, and English colonists in order to unravel the interlocking strains of African–Native American kinship ties throughout the Americas. As the title of Lakota artist Francis Yellow’s depiction of the first encounter between Africans and the indigenous population of the Carolinas stated, “First they made prayers and they sang and they danced, and then they made relatives.” Yet, as Forbes’s aptly demonstrated in his article “The Manipulation of Race, Caste and Identity,” the language of race shrouded African–Native American relations and kinship ties. Such an erasure resulted in, “…white writers [and Black ones too] …always finding blacks… and… always losing Indians.”
As Forbes noted, finding blacks and losing Indians was due to the broad usage of the aforementioned terms often used to identify peoples of African, Native American and African–Native American ancestry. As early as the mid eighteenth-century, Native Americans, including those living on reservations in what later became the eastern United States, were identified as Negro, mulatto or people of color. Runaway slave notices frequently identified a Negro or mulatto slave as being of the Indian breed. For example, a 1777 runaway slave notice in the Virginia Gazette for Sam described him as “a large, young mulatta fellow… of the Indian breed.” Three years later, the Virginia Gazette advertised for “Negro Joe” described as “being of the Indian breed.”
After the American Revolution, the free colored population increased and many Indians such as Littleton Scholar were reclassified as a free person of color. Scholar, a citizen of the Nottoway Indian Tribe in Southampton County, Virginia was identified as Indian in 1810; however, by 1830 he and each of his descendants were identified as a free person of color. The practice of grouping people of African and Native American ancestry under the same racial category continued for much of the twentieth-century. This even occurred in the western territories of the United States as African American author Ralph Ellison attested in his essay “Hidden Names and Complex Fate,” regarding his home state of Oklahoma: “And there was the Negro-Indian confusion. There were Negroes who were part Indian and who lived on reservations, and Indians who had children who lived in towns as Negroes, and Negroes who were Indians and traveled back and forth between the groups with no trouble.”
Forbes not only aimed to clarify the confusion, but he also aimed to challenge the double standard in defining who is black and who is Indian. As Karen Blu, author of The Lumbee Problem quipped, “It takes just one drop of Black blood to make a person Black, but it takes a whole lot of Indian blood to make a person an Indian.” Yet, in some cases it took a whole lot of white blood and a little bit of Indian blood to make an Indian as Cherokee nationalist David Cornsilk observed, “If you have a drop of Indian blood, then you may claim to be Indian, unless you are black.” Forbes confronted such a double standard while working among the Powhatan remnants in Virginia in the 1970s. Forbes admonished the tribes to resist enacting tribal laws that accepted those of white-Indian ancestry, but rejected those of black-Indian ancestry. Forbes laid bare the racialized hierarchy among Indian peoples underscored by colonialism in his autobiographical essay, “Shouting Back to the Geese”:
Of course working among Powhatan-Renape people and with other eastern Indians brought home to me the full impact of colonialism and also the difficulty of being Indian if one is also part African… Being a mixed-blood myself and also a mixture of many tribes, I had long been aware of the significance of being a “half-breed.” Back on the east coast, however, I became increasingly aware that those of us who looked European and Indian had a hell of an advantage over people who looked Indian and African. I thought that the deferential treatment was so much white racist bullshit and still do. I really resent white people trying to dissect us and tell us what it is that makes a person a Native American.
The double standard of defining who is black and who is Indian was responsible for the erasure of numerous Indian peoples and also the erasure of African America–Native American intersections and kinship relations, which were and continue to be an integral part of American reality.
The language of race was not the only contributor to the subjugated histories of African–Native American relations. European hegemony, what Forbes dubbed the “white hub”, the tendency to construct a master narrative which centralized Europeans as the major historical players of the story of the Americas at the expense of other narratives ignored, for example, the commingling and intermarriage of African and Native American peoples. As Forbes poignantly contended in his article “The Manipulation of Race, Caste, and Identity,” “There is no denying but what the image of the ‘Great White Fornicator’ is a popular one, exalted (as it were) by a vast folklore and accepted as valid almost without seeking proof.” Certainly, there was commingling and intermixing between peoples of African and European descent. That is a historical and contemporary fact that cannot be denied, although some would like to do so. Yet, as his large body of work attest, the story does not end there.
As Forbes stated, “…seeing white people as the hub or focus has led to the serious neglect of extremely significant social phenomena including the intersection of [Native] Americans and Africans directly with each other.” The complex interrelationship of peoples of African and Native American descent is of similar importance, a story worth telling for generations to come.
Forbes’s commitment to engage in the decolonizing practice which placed the stories of Indigenous Peoples and their social interactions with non-Europeans at the center was not always popular; but we are so much better for it. I do not think that in 1920 when Carter G. Woodson, the father of African American history, called for an examination into “the relations of the Negroes and the Indians …” that he could have imagined that such depth of scholarship was possible. At the time he dubbed the history of Negro-Indian relations “the longest unwritten chapter in the history of the United States.” Woodson’s statement is now obsolete as there is an abundance of works including monographs, anthologies, journal articles, documentaries, and artistic representations which testify to the validity and viability of African-Native American Studies (with more to come).
Yet, of all of these works, I think few would disagree that to date Forbes’s contributions stand above the rest. His contributions to African–Native American relations coupled with his early work in African American Studies makes him far more than an American Indian scholar of Native American Studies. Forbes came to see that the two fields and the lived experiences of the two peoples were not mutually exclusive. Hence, as the biblical saying goes, “Give honor to whom honor is due and tribute to whom tribute is due.” We should honor Forbes for his enormous contributions to Native American Studies; however, honoring his contributions to African American Studies and his ability to bridge these two interdisciplinary fields is no less fitting nor does it diminish his contribution to the former; In fact, he taught us that the threads of the red and the black, a complex weaving that began more than four centuries ago, are intertwined and securely woven into the fabric of America. Therefore, let us offer tobacco and pour libation in tribute to a man whose academic legacy reaches far and wide.
Arica L. Coleman is a lecturer for the Center for Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University. She is author of That the Blood Stays Pure: African Americans, Native Americans and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia, Indiana University Press, 2013.