Tomek on Power-Greene, 'Against Wind and Tide: The African American Struggle Against the Colonization Movement'

Ousmane Power-Greene
Beverly Tomek

Ousmane Power-Greene. Against Wind and Tide: The African American Struggle Against the Colonization Movement. New York: New York University Press, 2014. 273 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4798-2317-8.

Reviewed by Beverly Tomek (University of Houston-Victoria.)
Published on H-SHEAR (November, 2014)
Commissioned by Robert P. Murray

In Against Wind and Tide, Ousmane Power-Greene sets out to trace African American resistance to the African colonization movement and the American Colonization Society from the organization’s founding in 1817 into the Civil War and Reconstruction years. While historians of African American abolitionists have argued since Benjamin Quarles’s groundbreaking Black Abolitionists (1969) that resistance to colonization (what Power-Greene calls “anticolonization") fueled the black abolition movement, none have thoroughly traced the anticolonization movement over such a long stretch of time. Relying mostly on secondary literature and printed primary sources, such as pamphlets and newspaper articles, Power-Greene offers interesting insight into the interaction between pro- and anticolonizationists in the Midwest, and he offers a synthesis of black resistance to colonization over a broad time period.

Against Wind and Tide begins with the argument that only 13,000 African Americans went to Liberia between 1817 and the Civil War, while 8,000 went to Haiti in the 1820s alone, and Power-Greene uses these statistics to set up one of his main arguments—that American blacks “championed Haiti while denouncing Liberia” (p. xviii). He then states his purpose is to expose the reason for this and also to explain “why the vast majority of free blacks rejected Liberia” (p. xviii). He further contends that, in keeping with this focus, he wishes to make clear that emigration and colonization were two very different movements, with “colonization” referring to “the people and ideas of those who associated themselves with the ACS and Liberia” and emigration referring to “black-led movements that paralleled the colonization movement” (p. xix). According to Power-Greene, abolitionists and civil rights activists “believed that the colonization movement was one of the greatest obstacles to African American’s gaining citizenship in the United States,” and they remained convinced that Liberian colonization would be adopted by the government as national policy (p. 3). As a result they became determined to crush the movement, and they pursued this goal from the early 1800s through the Civil War, in the old northern states as well as the newer states to the west.  

The first chapter sets up Power-Greene’s distinction between emigration and colonization by examining the ways in which the Haitian emigration movement undermined the American Colonization Society’s (ACS) attempt to recruit settlers for the colony of Liberia. Here he gives a nice overview of the Haitian emigration effort and tells an interesting story about the relationship between the two movements, best illustrated through the case of Loring Dewey, an ACS agent who was expelled from that group after seeking to cooperate with supporters of Haitian emigration. He also illustrates that black Americans saw in Haiti a tangible “potential for national building rooted in self-reliance, individual elevations, and racial progress,” and that while the movement may have seemed a failure in some respects, it was successful in “derailing” ACS efforts (p. 39). Establishing Haiti as “a symbol of African-descended peoples’ potential,” the movement also “pioneered a tradition of African American internationalism as a feature of the struggle for black rights in the United States and against African colonization”; demonstrated that most blacks willing to leave the United States preferred Haiti over Libera; and “highlighted how far blacks would go to attain citizenship and live in a place where racial prejudice was not the central obstacle to personal advancement” (p. 44).

Chapter 2 examines anticolonizationist ideology and the efforts of leaders to build a movement to resist colonization while furthering abolition. Here Power-Greene traces how all the main arguments of anticolonizationists stemmed from David Walker, who set the groundwork for anticolonization by arguing that black progress in the North hinged upon destroying the colonization movement, that colonization “would sever the bond between Africans enslaved and those free,” that white friends of the freedom cause had been duped by proslavery interests to support colonization, and that colonization was geared toward “the perpetuation of slavery in this country forever” (p. 49). After Walker, black leaders began to meet in annual conventions where they continued to develop the anticolonizationist movement and to share ideas that spread into the broader antislavery movement through men like William Lloyd Garrison. While the connection between resistance to colonization and the emergence of immediatism is well known, Power-Greene does a nice job of laying out the progression, and he points to the irony of colonizationists thinking blacks shunned their movement because of Garrison’s influence when the truth was, in fact, the opposite. By treating anticolonization as its own movement, Power-Greene is able to highlight black centrality to the emergence of immediatism, and he explains how the “abolitionist assault” furthered the efforts of Haitian emigration in turning most reformers away from the ACS, sending the leaders of that organization to England in a quest for financial and moral support. After explaining why colonizationists sought English support, Power-Greene then examines their efforts there, and the extent to which they failed and succeeded, in a chapter that sometimes focuses too much on white leaders like Garrison.

The most interesting and innovative section of the book examines the contest in the Midwest and the West between colonizationists, who sought support for their effort to remove free blacks and found receptive audiences who hoped to keep these newly settled areas free of black settlers, and anticolonizationists, who realized that these efforts were undermining the movement for black civil rights, not only in the new states but throughout the nation. Power-Greene contends that the ACS enjoyed unprecedented success in the early 1850s as the question over the status of new states fueled debates over the place of blacks in those states and resulted in several states attempting to exclude blacks altogether. Here he does a nice job of putting the reader in the shoes of free blacks who feared forced deportation, and his discussion of the anticolonizationist movement in Chicago tells a new story (p. 99).  

As racial tensions in the United States worsened in the 1850s, a handful of black leaders began to ponder the benefits of emigration to Haiti, Canada, Central and South America, and even Africa. Power-Greene traces this development as well as anticolonizationists’ efforts against it, showing how Frederick Douglass led the charge to deliberately conflate “emigration” with “colonization” as he sought to convince other black Americans to avoid emigrationist leaders like Martin R. Delany and instead to stay and fight for their rights in the United States. The final chapter considers African American debates over colonization and emigration during and soon after the Civil War, and Power-Greene concludes his story by discussing the legacy of colonization into the twentieth century.

Power-Greene adds to the stories of black abolition and of colonization by offering a long temporal and a broad geographic view of the resistance movement. While many studies have focused on how resistance to colonization sparked the black abolition movement, he is the first to take the story to the Civil War years. Also, his is the first study to explore in depth the resistance movement in the newer states and to put anticolonization within the context of westward expansion, the rise of political abolition, and Liberian independence.

This book is born of an interesting idea but would have benefited from a bit more guidance in the transition from dissertation to monograph.  The main issue is that much of the book relies heavily on a number of key secondary sources when archival research could have led to deeper analysis. The strongest example here is chapter 3, which essentially recapitulates R. J. M. Blackett’s 1983 Building an Antislavery Wall. Power-Greene adds that this “antislavery wall” was also an “anticolonization wall” (p. 6), but then he mostly rehashes the debates Blackett wrote about in his original work. In staying so close to Blackett, Power-Greene failed to consider more recent analysis of colonizationist motivation. Power-Greene could have avoided this criticism by maintaining his focus on African American resistance rather than rehashing old arguments, but by diverging from his stated purpose he left himself open to criticism for not addressing more recent works, of which there are many available. Similarly, his analysis of the relationship between Delany and Douglass relies heavily on Robert S. Levine’s dual biography of the men. In some cases he pays homage in his introduction to works that he should have made better use of in his analysis, most notably Nick Guyatt’s work on the connection between Indian Removal and colonization.[1] In several places he returns to the fear of black leaders that they would be forcefully deported, but he does not really evaluate the extent to which those concerns were legitimate. He should have done this in the body of the work. 

Power-Greene would have benefited from a tighter review process in other ways as well. To begin with, the stated purpose of the book is to trace black Americans’ resistance to African colonization and the ACS while discussing more empowering black-led emigration options. He stresses that he is going to correct the historical record by showing clearly the difference between colonization and emigration, but that difference has long been obvious. Floyd Miller made it clear in 1975, Julie Winch (not Wench, as noted in one of the footnotes on p. 203) did a great job of developing it further in her outstanding biography of James Forten, and several specialists in black abolition and colonization have further stressed it in recent years.[2] It is a very common mistake for writers early in their careers to set up straw men, but a good peer review generally draws this out and serves as a corrective. A second issue that could have been corrected through further revision involves focus. Had Power-Green kept a tight focus on black resistance, he could have eliminated his overreliance on some secondary sources and offered a more original result. For example, throughout the book he maintains that he is dealing with the complicated motives of the ACS, and he returns to this theme periodically, but he did not clearly lay out this debate up front in a way that he could then use when analyzing black reaction. More importantly, his stated objective did not require him to do more than set up the complicated story of the ACS at the outset before moving on and telling how African Americans reacted. By trying to trace this theme throughout, he sometimes lost his thesis. Finally, to make this book outstanding he needed to do some archival work in Haiti and in abolitionist collections to take the story to a deeper level. In the end, given the emphasis on Haiti in the introduction and first chapter, the reader is left to wonder what happened to the relationship between African American leaders and Haiti. There are hints of this, but no real closure on that part of the story.


Printable Version:

Citation: Beverly Tomek. Review of Power-Greene, Ousmane, Against Wind and Tide: The African American Struggle Against the Colonization Movement. H-SHEAR, H-Net Reviews. November, 2014.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.