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Book Review: 'Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington...

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  • Amos J Wright
    Andrew Zimmerman. Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South. Princeton Princeton University Press,
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 18, 2011
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      Andrew Zimmerman. Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the
      German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South. Princeton
      Princeton University Press, 2010. xii + 397 pp. $35.00 (cloth),
      ISBN 978-0-691-12362-2.

      Reviewed by Daniel Speich Chassé
      Published on H-TGS (July, 2011)
      Commissioned by Corinna R. Unger

      At the heart of Andrew Zimmerman's study lies a seemingly ordinary
      colonial adventure set in the first decade of the twentieth century.
      Commissioned by imperial authorities, several Western agricultural
      experts went to Togo to transform the African colony into a cotton
      economy. What makes Zimmerman's story extraordinarily interesting is
      the fact that these experts from the United States belonged to an
      emerging African American elite that formed around Booker T.
      Washington's Tuskegee Institute, and that they cooperated with German
      imperialism. In a brilliant yet complex account, Zimmerman connects
      African, German, and American regional histories as elements of a
      truly transnational history. Its core topics are disputes over free
      labor, global agriculture, and structures of colonial rule and
      exploitation. The book studies the emergence of a complex of
      oppression and exploitation undergirded by race and sexuality in the
      transnational world of imperialism. It is a model study for
      transnational inquiries and probably one of the more important books
      in the emerging body of global historical literature. Such a judgment
      seems appropriate because Zimmerman not only tracks down the
      interconnectedness of historical experiences in three continents, but
      in the final two chapters, he also sketches the institutionalization
      of transnational connections by virtue of international political
      bodies, namely, the League of Nations and universalized bodies of
      social scientific knowledge--in this case, agricultural sociology in
      a Weberian tradition.

      The account starts with the appointment of Baron Beno von Herman auf
      Wein in 1895 as agricultural attaché to the German embassy in
      Washington DC. Baron von Herman established contacts to Washington at
      the Tuskegee Institute because he believed that the training programs
      of this institution could be applied to the German colony of Togo. He
      persuaded Washington to recruit "'two negro-cottonplanters and one
      negro-mechanic ... who would be willing to come over to ... the
      colony of Togo in West-Africa to teach the negroes there how to plant
      and harvest cotton in a rational and scientific way'" (p. 5). In 1901
      James N. Calloway, Allen Lynn Burks, Shepherd Lincoln Harris, and
      John Winfrey Robinson arrived in Lomé. They established an
      experimental farm in Tove including a group of six villages where
      they bred a strain of cotton resembling the American Upland variety
      and produced seeds for the entire German colony. Harris also built up
      his own cotton farm, which was to set an example of cotton growing
      and domestic economy for the African farmers. In 1902, five more
      African American farming experts traveled to Togo; two of them
      drowned upon landing. Harris died of a fever. Calloway returned in
      1903 to Tuskegee and so did the rest of the staff in 1904. Only
      Robinson, who learned to speak Ewe and married two Togolese women,
      stayed on. He died in 1908 but the cotton projects proved rather
      successful. The cotton variety the Americans introduced became a
      standard seed in Togo because it produced a quality staple fit for
      industrial processing on the European market. The agricultural
      institutions the Americans had established remained in operation,
      run, after 1914, by the French authorities and, after 1960, by
      independent Togo's government.

      Zimmerman's main ambition is to reconstruct all possible ambivalences
      entailed in this small story and to place it in a large, global
      historical background. Zimmerman identifies the central conflict of
      the story in the strange alliance between African American
      emancipation and German imperialism. The material on which his book
      is based relates to the political economy of cotton production that
      emerged in the New American South after emancipation. Once labor was
      freed, Zimmerman argues, industrial capitalism needed institutions of
      oppression and exploitation. A specific constellation of labor
      ethics, labor organization, plant breeding, and social order emerged
      from this challenge. For African American elites it entailed a
      promise of economic emancipation; for German imperialists it entailed
      the idea that it was possible to extract a larger amount of natural
      resources from the colony through the use of coerced African labor.
      One of the key witnesses of this tension between emancipation and
      exploitation was W. E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois had studied sociology with
      Max Weber and economics with Gustav Schmoller in Germany, thereby
      becoming acquainted with ideas and theories designed in response to
      Eastern Prussia's problems of agricultural organization, which were
      structurally similar to those diagnosed by German imperial
      administrators in Togo.

      In five steps, Zimmerman unfolds a plethora of transnational and
      transcontinental connections. The first chapter recalls the necessity
      of qualitatively graded cotton for industrial processing. The slave
      labor economy of the American South produced such a quality. The
      disciplining of labor was a necessary corollary of industrialization.
      Upon emancipation it was connected to a specific construction of
      African American racial identity and to the political economy of the
      New American South. In this situation, African American educational
      perspectives as expressed in the work and mission of Washington
      proved important. The contradictions between hierarchical social
      organization, prevailing practices of racial segregation, and the
      promises of rational farming laid the basis for the decidedly
      political academic work of George Washington Carver and Du Bois. It
      also informed Marcus Garvey's conviction that African Americans
      needed to envision a future as settlers on the African continent.

      In chapter 2, the reader is confronted with a completely different
      historical setting, namely, the establishment of the modern welfare
      state in Prussia. Zimmerman draws a line from the social reforms
      initiated by Prussian reformers Karl Freiherr vom und zum Stein and
      Karl August Freiherr von Hardenberg at the beginning of the
      nineteenth century to the founding of the German "Verein für
      Socialpolitik" in 1873. The debates of its members were linked to the
      German project of "internal settlement" in East Prussia; to the rise
      of Marxism as a leading ideology in the German Social Democratic
      Party; and to the phenomenon of Polish labor migration, which
      encompassed specific constructions of sexuality and racial identity.
      It was this combination of contemporary problems against which Du
      Bois defended his PhD thesis, "Der landwirtschaftliche Gross- und
      Kleinbetrieb in den Vereinigten Staaten" (Large and Small
      Agricultural Enterprises in the United States), in 1893 in Berlin.
      Zimmerman carefully reconstructs those elements of Germany's
      historical experience that were crucial for Du Bois. They included
      the technical aspects of producing the one important staple crop
      other than cotton, the sugar beet, a crop around which social
      problems of agricultural organization emerged in Prussia in the
      second half of the nineteenth century, a situation that to Du Bois
      seemed comparable to the political economy of cotton production in
      the American South.

      Chapter 3 reconstructs the Togo experience of the African American
      experts. The chapter discusses Togo's position in the Atlantic slave
      trade and Germany's early imperial agenda. African forms of political
      resistance and African emancipatory prospects became confronted with
      African American ideas of modernization, rationalization, and racial
      identity, producing a pan-African clash of concepts of civilization.
      To those Zimmerman easily adds the German Social Democrats' notion of
      modernization and race as expressed in the heated debate on an
      assumed "Negerfrage" (Negro question). Most striking were the
      unexpected synergies that resulted from the American system of
      sharecropping in the cotton sector and German domestic experiences of
      internal colonization and the cultivation of the sugar beet.
      Zimmerman shows how this conjuncture resulted in the establishment of
      new exploitative economic structures in Togo prior to 1914.

      Chapter 4 takes up the new bodies of international and transnational
      intellectual exchange that emerged after World War One. Zimmerman
      connects the tradition of pan-African conferences to Woodrow Wilson's
      imagination of a peaceful world order as embodied in the League of
      Nations. As African Americans in favor of economic modernization
      strongly criticized Belgian colonial practices in Congo, they laid
      the ground for the construction of international alliances against
      European imperialism. A non-paternalistic mode of developmental
      intervention into the African continent became an obvious necessity
      for European Social Democrats and African American intellectuals
      alike, the realization of which albeit remained problematic
      throughout the twentieth century.[1]

      In chapter 5, Zimmerman shows how closely the design of a social
      scientific perspective on a generalized historical process of
      "modernization" was linked to European colonial experiences, African
      American emancipatory perspectives, and African positions. His book
      offers a very insightful reading of the history of sociology by
      localizing Weber in an early global discourse that encompassed places
      like Lomé, Atlanta, and Berlin. It found its first expression in the
      Chicago School of Sociology founded by Robert E. Park, who not only
      investigated labor and migration problems in the American Midwest but
      also traveled extensively through Africa, basing his analytical tools
      on the German academic tradition.

      Zimmerman's account is excessively rich in detail. It exemplifies a
      new mode of historical scholarship that boldly leaves behind
      nationally and regionally consigned inquiries in favor of a
      historical narrative of transnational connections across seemingly
      firm boundaries of race and geography. Some general remarks seem thus
      appropriate. Zimmerman's main thesis is that constellations which
      emerged in the American South after emancipation were globalized in
      the first decades of the twentieth century. According to his
      interpretation, specific visions of the American South became a
      template of the global South and thus magnified social scientific
      perspectives from a domestic American context to the world at large,
      thanks to German sociology. Such an account is fully convincing, even
      more so as it clearly shows the limits of a historical approach that
      aims to explain the postcolonial development endeavor as a result of
      an assumed American exceptionalism.[2] Rather, Zimmerman rightly
      informs us that global historical scholarship has to broaden its
      perspective and to take into account European and African experiences
      in order to fully understand the globalization of the modernization
      concept, which structured global history in the twentieth century.
      _Alabama in Africa_ shows that such an endeavor can offer new tools
      to fully assess what Charles S. Maier has called a core conflict in
      consigning the twentieth century to history, namely, the scandal of a
      global economic divide between the North and the South, i.e., between
      Europe and America on the one hand and Asia, Africa, and Latin
      America on the other.[3] It is hard to imagine a more appropriate
      mode of inquiry than set affront by Zimmerman in this highly
      innovative book.

      Still some reservations must be made. By relocating Alabama to Africa
      Zimmerman opens up an enormously wide spun net of relations, which
      cannot easily be accommodated in a historical narrative. To put it
      more simply: this book is hard to read. The consequent transnational
      approach produces a picture in which the length of cotton fibers is
      positioned directly next to lynching mobs, and in which African
      agricultural practices are linked to highly abstract notions in
      academic Berlin. This structure produces a story that is not always
      easy to follow. In terms of content, Zimmerman has a clear message.
      In terms of form, however, his account sometimes runs astray in
      details, which are important for understanding the different local
      trajectories he wishes to combine but which in their sum obfuscate
      the central argument.[4] It remains unclear what really stands at the
      heart of the book. Is it the person of Calloway, the leader of the
      Togo mission? Is it Washington, as the title suggests? Or is it
      rather Du Bois, the discussion of whom actually fills the pages of
      the book? Is it an American upland variety of cotton, or the Prussian
      sugar beet featured on the cover jacket illustration? In its
      intricate details, this book does not convince because it fails to
      sum them up in one clear narrative. In its total, however, Zimmerman
      has achieved what very few historians have achieved so
      far--accounting for global connections. We must assume that the
      misfit between content and form is a structural characteristic of
      that global historiography, for which current trends in the
      discipline call for. Zimmerman's account is tough reading and hard
      stuff for reviewers, but excellent scholarship, and it sketches a
      trajectory for future global historical research.

      Notes

      [1]. The moral ambivalence of the well-meant global development
      endeavor in the post-1945 era has been highlighted, among others, by
      Arturo Escobar, _Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of
      the Third World_ (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

      [2]. This is what David Ekbladh suggests in his _The Great American
      Mission: Modernization and the Construction of an American World
      Order_ (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).

      [3]. Charles S. Maier, "Consigning the Twentieth Century to History:
      Alternative Narratives for the Modern Era," _American Historical
      Review_ 105, no. 3 (2000): 807-831. On global inequality, see also
      Alexander Nützenadel and Daniel Speich, "Editorial: Global
      Inequality and Development after 1945," _Journal of Global History_
      6, no. 1 (2011): 1-5.

      [4]. Hayden White, _The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and
      Historical Representation_ (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
      Press, 1987).

      Citation: Daniel Speich Chassé. Review of Zimmerman, Andrew,
      _Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the
      Globalization of the New South_. H-TGS, H-Net Reviews. July, 2011.
      URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=32394

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