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Modern Voices
Noel Ignatiev on the role of westward expansion
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Q: What is the role of westward expansion in American culture?
Noel Ignatiev

A: The West plays an important role in Americans' sense of who they are. Certainly, the movement west -- since the Puritans landed on the rocky shores of New England -- the movement west has always been identified with a quest for freedom, with a flight from restriction, from the old repressive order. It has always involved a search for adventure, for freedom. And there's a tremendous myth and culture and so forth built up around that. And there's a validity to that.

But, like every other aspect of American society, it assumes a different tint when it's looked at through a color-sensitive lens. Because when one realizes that the terms of westward settlement was an exclusion of the Afro-American from the possibility of participating in that settlement, then the western movement takes on a new content.

In looking at the history of Afro-Americans in this country, one must look at it not as if this is some exotic group of interesting people in a foreign country about whom we ought to learn a little bit more, but rather understand that the history of black folk in the United States is central to the history of Americans as a whole. That applies to the shaping of the American national identity, to the particular forms that the American republic takes, to the meaning of citizenship, to the meaning of westward movement, to the meaning of labor movement, of reform, of every other aspect of American society. If you re-insert the Negro into their proper place in that history, then it reshapes how we look at all the rest of the history, as well.

The move west did mean grand heroism. It did involve sacrifice and putting up with arduous conditions and so forth on the part of those who moved west. Of course, it also meant a genocidal extermination of the native occupiers of the land, the Indians. And it also meant either the bringing of the Negro west like a mule or an ox, or the exclusion of the free Negro from the West. So that, like everything else, it reshaped the meaning of the western settlement, and it led to, in fact, not free access to the West for either ordinary whites or blacks, but rather free access to the West for railroads and huge mining combines and logging monopolies and all the rest of it.
Noel Ignatiev
Writer and Historian
Du Bois Institute, Harvard University
Visiting Associate Professor
Bowdoin College

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