U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Meaning of a "nation" and a "nation within a nation"

I’ve recently been working on some essays for an undergraduate resource, in which several different scholars answer the same question with different answers. The idea is to give undergrads a sense of the way a historical argument is composed, as well as a range of ways to answer major historical questions.

One of my questions was: “Do African Americans constitute a nation within a nation?” In order to answer this question I started to muse on two disparate ideas–what is a nation? and what is black nationalism? Most of the study of the concept of “nation” that I have done has been in the context of Eastern Europe (an early fork in the road I did not take). For instance, one of the first history texts I remember reading and sinking my teeth into was Eric Hobsbawm’s Nations and Nationalism. For a brush up, I read the entry on nationalism in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas, which concentrated primarily on the difference between nations built on political union (like the United States) and those built on ethnic identity (like Eastern European countries).

I was following the Dictionary’s argument along fairly happily, till it had a throw away sentence about how multi-ethnic nations are possible and that this is proved by the fact that African Americans constitute a (happy little) “nation within a nation.” I felt like the author was implying that “Though we’ve had our differences, now everything is sweet and harmonious.” (Perhaps I ought not to have gone to the Dictionary in the first place and now that I’m trying to refind the url, always so easy in the past and now proving illusory, I’m not sure whether I was in the “New” Dictionary or the one that is quite old).

The more I thought about the question, the more strongly I felt like I had to argue that African Americans do not constitute a separate nation. This is in part due to the difficulties within historic claims to black separatism–in their ultimate goals, they all posited mass movement or displacement–returning to Africa, or taking over Oklahoma or something like that. Those within the group might have been willing to move, but it would have taken a catastrophe like the Bosnian war to force all people of African descent in this country to relocate. Political independence on a local scale has worked to some extent (in black towns or in cities with black mayors), but those entities still have to be in relationship to state or national governments.

Black nationalism has also been expressed economically–and again this has worked more successfully at a local level than at a national one–and at many different local levels. That is another difficulty–do black New Yorkers share more of their identity with other New Yorkers or with rural black Alabamans? Well, I would guess it depends on the individual and the level of discrimination. But how would a distinct nation link all these disparate groups across the country together? Perhaps in the media.

Even while arguing these things, I wanted to recognize that there is a particular identity that many African Americans claim–often called “black.” I posited that this might be called a racial identity, because as such it did not require the kind of political or economic autonomy suggested by the word “nation.” And I also pointed out how often the products of African American’s hands, brains, and musical ears have contributed to an American identity. It is impossible to separate the development of the United States from the work that slaves did or the cultural contributions of African Americans. Certainly, in the world, one of the United States’ most recognized exports is rap music.

The United States is black Americans’ nation. For the most part, African Americans created a new ethnic identity out of merged African and European traditions on this continent. I can see how it would make sense to talk about Korean Americans or even Ethiopian Americans (particularly the first generation and those who continue to speak their birth languages) as a nation within a nation. It does not seem like the same logic applies to African Americans.

Ok, but what about all those ethnic intellectuals that created nationalism out of more or less whole cloth? Czech and Polish poets who wrote down their languages for the first time in the mid-1800s and began to create a national identity? If they can do this, why can’t African Americans do the same? And of course, many black intellectuals have done just this–created the content of a black nationalism, or an Africana philosophy.

Perhaps the solution to this final question is the way the essay question is worded–it is “do African Americans constitute a nation within a nation” not “should African Americans be a separate nation, have a separate nationalism?” It seems to me that the first question is more suited to a historian and the second to a public intellectual.

I don’t know, though. The whole essay caused huge internal turmoil for me. Maybe by asserting that African Americans’ nation was the United States (without a separate concentric nation), I was aliding historical reality in the way that I thought the author of the Dictionary essay had done. Was I doing a major disservice to the lived experiences of some African Americans while recognizing that of those who claim a fully American identity. To recognize the latter group, I discussed black soldiers. The contribution of black soldiers to every American war has often been raised to “prove” African Americans’ patriotism and commitment to this country.

I’m researching South Africa right now and this is what brought up these thoughts again today. Leon De Kock’s sentence that caused this post: “Arguments about the origins of South African “literature” still shuttle between different languages, different nationalisms, and different notions of culture, history, and belonging in mutually excluding series and genealogies. Do Afrikaaners constitute a “nation within a nation?” They have been in South Africa nearly as long as people of African or European descent have been in the territory that became the United States. Do Zulus? Because of the many different languages in South Africa, are they more nearly a multi-nation state? Or is the correlation with the United States closer than I’m recognizing?

What do you all think about the concept of the “nation?” When I first started studying it, we were right before 9-11 and my profs kept talking about how the nation-state was going to fade away in favor of the multi-national corporation. It seems like the post-9-11 era and anti-terrorism has reasserted the importance of the nation-state.

10 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. The idea of a “nation within the nation” goes back at least to the time of Cardinal Richelieu, who began the process of undoing the Edict of Nantes on the grounds that it had allowed the Huguenots to create an “imperium in imperio,” i.e., their own quasi-state within France. (For example, they had their own fortified towns.) Not quite the same thing since nationalism as we understand it wasn’t really applicable (although one can argue the place of religion in French national identity, but in the 1620s they wouldn’t have understood it the way we do).

    Bottom line, though, the idea is quite an old one. Not to mention, if there hadn’t been all these nations within nations 200 years ago, nationalism would have had a really hard time getting off the ground in the first place. Self-determination hardly makes sense without it. I suspect the concept of nationalism couldn’t really function without excluding someone, whether intentionally or accidentally. No matter how inclusive, someone’s bound to get left out.

  2. An interesting post, Lauren; sorry I’m coming to it so late!

    I’ve long been fascinated by questions of nationalism and national identity (a long time ago, in a galaxy far away, I wrote my undergrad thesis on 18th-century Russian nationalism and the development of the idea of the Russian nation).

    Varad Mehta’s apt comment muddies the waters a little, by equating the nation and the state. These are obviously two different things, though the relationship between the two of them is at issue here (and pretty much whenever one talks about nations). For over a century, the nation-state has been the dominant form of statehood. To claim that some group of people constitutes a nation is, to a great extent, a claim to statehood. And a state encompasses more than one nation needs to justify that fact and is often called upon to provide some sort of autonomy for its minority nations.

    In the nineteenth-century, Romantic thinkers like Herder tended to see nations as natural entities, each possessing a particular Volksgeist or natural spirit. As Adolph Reed, Jr., has argued, W.E.B. DuBois’s notion of double-consciousness is deeply wedded to this idea of natural nations encompassing unique spirits. Over the course of the nineteenth-century, the notion that each such nation deserved a unified state developed. Nation’s in transnational empires (like the Poles and Czechs) demanded national liberation. Nations divided among states (like the Germans and Italians) demanded unification.

    More recently, scholars have seen nations as, in Benedict Anderson’s famous expression, as “imagined communities,” socially constructed entities often created by state power.

    Modern popular understandings of nationhood hover between these two poles, though I think they tend to lean toward the earlier vision.

    And of course when one is talking about a nation, much depends on which of these two things one is describing.

    And there are further distinctions. Is a (natural) nation of the Herder sort determined by language (present or past…the Welsh and Scots and Irish, who today overwhelmingly speak English, regard themselves and are regarded by others, as separate nations, in part because of past linguistic difference), religion, ethnicity (whatever that is beyond language and religion), or something else? And of course, language and religion themselves do not exist outside state power. As Yiddishists like to say, “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” Before 1991, there was a language called Serbo-Croatian. Today there are two languages, Serbian and Croatian.

    One way or another, as Varad Mehta points out, identifying a nation is necessarily a process of exclusion. An all-inclusive nation isn’t a nation at all.

    One of the problems with the high Romantic notion of the nation, and its attendant claim to statehood, is that people who belong to what we’d be tempted to call separate nations (i.e. folks with different languages, cultures, and religions) often live cheek-by-jowel among each other. In 1900, the population of large parts of Eastern and Central Europe was like this: Germans, Slavs, Jews, Magyars, etc. all living amongst each other, governed largely by states who understood themselves dynastically not nationally (i.e.. the Austrian portion of the Dual Monarchy, Tsarist Russia, and the Ottoman Empire; Imperial Germany and Hungary, on the other hand, had essentially national self-conceptions).

    (to be cont…)

  3. (continuing the previous comment….)

    The demographics of Eastern and Central Europe made it essentially impossible to divide the map into the ideal, unified, nation-states of Romantic (and later Wilsonian) dreams, especially when many of these would-be nations had national origin myths that lay claim to land also claimed by other nation’s national origin myths. That Central and Eastern Europe today is largely composed of such states is a testimony to the efficacy of genocide, forced expulsions, and war at creating maps that match this version of national identity. Yet we have largely failed to learn the lessons of this history, as the discourse about Israel-Palestine continually shows.

    All of which gets back to Lauren’s original question. What’s at stake if we were to call African American’s a “nation within a nation”? Let’s assume that it’s not a claim to independent statehood or even to an unexercised/unexcercisable right to independent statehood (though a separate nation for African Americas was, FWIW, the Communist Party line during the so-called Third Period (1928-35), in effect mirroring Stalin’s nationalities policy in the Soviet Union).

    Nor, I think, would it be a claim to qualify for the peculiar U.S. institution of “domestic dependent nations,” which is the legal status of Native American nations within the U.S.

    I read the move to call African Americans a “nation within a nation” as some sort of claim for the cohesion and significance of African American culture combined with some sort of acknowledgement of the social separation of African Americans from others in the U.S. And I suspect part of the power of the phrase “nation within a nation” is precisely its inexactness and its pointing in the direction of something significant–statehood–which it is quite obviously not directly claiming. But my guess is that different people using the expression mean slightly different things by it.

  4. One other thought: John Murrin, the historian of colonial North America, wrote a fascinating paper that he never published AFAIK, in which he argued that the Confederate States of America had a far more solid claim to nationhood (and thus, potentially, to nation-statehood) in 1861 than the United States of America had in 1776, both in terms of their internal cultural unity and their differences from the country against which they were revolting. The paper was written not at all in the spirit of Confederate apologetics (if you know John, he’s the last person who’d do that!), but rather to show both how problematic national claims to statehood could be and how complicated were the circumstances under which the USA successfully came into existence while the CSA failed to do so. (Or–and this is perhaps my spin, not John Murrin’s as it’s been a long, long time since I read his paper–how much more morally clear the Civil War was as the war against slavery that it became than as the war for union that it began as.)

  5. To follow up on Ben Alpers’ comment about the nation and the state being distinct yet treated functionally as cognates, the time Richelieu was striking at the Huguenots was the same time that the French state was coming into being. (The rise of the nation-state is, of course, one of the traditional “great issues” in early modern history.) Part of that process of state formation was the settling of France’s relationship to the Catholic Church. France would remain Catholic but retain her Gallican liberties. This meant that over time what was accepted as the necessary evil of accommodation with the Protestants became less necessary and more evil, until Louis XIV finally undid it. By that time it was the firm policy of the monarchy that Protestantism was incompatible with being French.

    Fast forward a century and we have Sieyes declaring that the Third Estate is an entire nation within itself, that everything that belongs to it belongs to the nation, and that everything outside the Third Estate is outside the nation. It’s not hard to guess where such rhetoric might lead. His sense of nation is fairly modern. And in his conception it is infinitely larger and more important than the mere state. His whole purpose is to justify the Third Estate’s absorption of the state. It is the nation, ergo the state belongs to it by definition. Richelieu was concerned to neutralize the “nation” of the Huguenots because it threatened the state. Sieyes demanded the neutralization of the state because it threatened the nation. Quite the reversal.

  6. One thing we need to be sure to do in thinking about nationalism is to jettison the outmoded view that it is a product of the Romanticism of the nineteenth century. Nationalism as an ideology indeed is, I think it fair to say, a product of the nineteenth century. But the idea of nations and peoples long preceded that. Scholars have found evidence of distinct national (“We’re English, you’re French) attitudes in the sixteenth century, and I suspect they probably go back to the Middle Ages.

    Another thing to keep in mind is the conflict nationalism has not with other nationalism, but transnational ideals, especially cosmopolitanism. That tension is manifest in Rousseau. On the one hand he championed some of the ideas of the abbe St. Pierre, one of the intellectual great-grandfathers of European integration. On the other, he was fiercely jealous of national difference and feared the corrosive effects of “European” culture on isolated cultural communities, such as his native Geneva and Poland. He told the latter to reject European customs and embrace their own; they might be terrible, but they were Polish, and that’s what mattered.

    At the same time there was a huge controversy in France about which should have the greater power, the monarchy or the nobilty, which hinged on the relationship of the Gauls to the Franks, and the Franks to the Romans. A thousand years after the fact, French nobles were arguing that they were a distinct race because they were descended from the invading Franks, while everyone else was descended from the conquered Gauls. The nobility, according to its most reactionary elements, was a nation of its own (though they didn’t put it this way) because it had always been one from the day it had entered France 1200 years previously. It’s not hard to see why Sieyes was so pissed off, and come 1793 claiming you belonged to a separate nation than all the Third Estate rabble would turn out to have been a rather bad idea.

    Sometimes you want to belong to a group; sometimes you don’t want to belong one; and sometimes you just want to keep the other fellow out. All three processes are necessary to nationalism. Hence, it will always be as much about exclusion as it is inclusion.

  7. One last thing. The United States has within it several entities which are in both the formal and informal senses of the concept a “nation within a nation.” They’re found on reservations.

  8. Varad, thank you for pointing out the development of the idea of nationalism’s birth in the 19th century. Since I haven’t studied “nations” since undergrad, I figured my historiography was out of date. I have also frequently wondered what the concept of “nation” was that is found repeated often in the Old Testament, relating to the tribes that Israel tried to push out of the Promised Land, and also in the New Testament in terms of who the disciples needed to convert. That does seem to place the advent of nation before the 19th century, but then is there a problem of translation here. Did “nation” replace an earlier noun?

    Native Americans formalized status as indeed separate nations that have a unique interaction with the United States’ culture and the US government does indeed suggest that African Americans’ situation is different.

    In terms of nationalism always being about exclusion–are you responding to my query about who would be included within an African American nation? That finding many groups that would not fit within that question does nothing to the primary question of black nationalism? I can see why that might be the case on the larger scale (i.e. that recognizing the larger African diaspora does not preclude a black American nationality). But I wonder how it works with local black communities that feel a distinct connection to the identity of “blackness” but at the same time are connected to the American identity and are overseen by local, national, and federal governments? Is calling African Americans a “nation within a nation” primarily an issue of identity? Or does it suggest a longing for separate political autonomy? In terms of the essay in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas, that author uses the phrase to suggest the happy fact that a multi-national country can exist. Many Black Nationalists would reject just that and see their nationalism as the opening of the door to self-determination.

  9. Not soon after I made my rather offhand comment about Indians, the kerfuffle between the UK, the US, and the Iroquois regarding the last named’s “passports” erupted. It was a prime example of the uneasy political and cultural space Native Americans occupy as an imperium in imperio . . .

    Lauren, I was not trying to address the question of black nationalism and the existence/nature of an African American nation. That is far outside my competence. At least, I wasn’t addressing it directly. I was trying instead to delve into the whole idea of a “nation within a nation” and sort out some of the various connotations that idea has had over the centuries. I last studied nationalism when I was a brand new Ph.D. student a very long time ago. (Yes, I’ve read “Imagined Communities”!) I’m sure to be out of date on what is going on with it today.

    That said, I think our dialogue raises several essential issues about the nature of nationalism. First is the scope of nationalism, or the question of who belongs and who doesn’t. I must concede, as you phrase it, that nationalism is always about exclusion. But I should qualify that by stating that exclusion does not always have to be – and isn’t – the main purpose of defining a national community. That can be a passive instead of an active principle.

    That depends, I think, on just how the “community” is being “imagined.” The broader the criterion (or criteria), the more inclusive the nation, I expect. I want to say that ascriptive traits will have a narrower compass, and descriptive a wider. That’s a very loose conceptualization, and I will not make any strong defense of its theoretical validity.

    But that’s the real issue: what is the nation? As I tried to show via my examples, history offers no single answer. For Richelieu, it was based on religion (French = Catholic). For Sieyes, the nation was the Third Estate, that is, those Frenchmen who did occupied all the productive offices in France. The nation was a particular socioeconomic order, one it just so happened was composed by 99% of the 28 million Frenchmen. And for some of Sieyes’ predecessors, the nation was racial, so that the Franks and Gauls being of different “races,” the peasantry and French nobility were different nations, too.

    Then the categories explode. There’s race in the modern post-Darwinian sense. There’s linguistic nationalism, nationalism as the expression of language, a la the old saw about a language being a dialect with an army and navy. Then there’s ethnicity, whatever that is; perhaps some uneasy amalgam of race in the old and new senses with language thrown in. Language, and culture, which is another important category, one inextricably bound up with the rest.

    In the end, therefore, I can only answer your questions with more questions. What kind of nationalism is black nationalism? It’s not really a linguistic nationalism. A cultural nationalism? I would say yes, but two objections would be that blacks are no less a part of broader American culture (whatever it is); and another would be the one raised by the naysayers who jeer, there’s no single black culture, you have to look at all the different African cultures that sent people over here. Ethnic and racial? Treacherous ground, but an inescapable part of “blackness.” And once those are sorted out, we can ask, what sort of “self-determination” is African American nationalism meant to achieve?

    In the end we wind up where we always do when confronting such matters: ruing and wondering with Crevocoeur, “What then is the American, this new man?” Given all this, you will excuse me when I admit that I devote my work to answering far easier questions. What is modernity? What is history? How do humans conceive of the past? to name a few.

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