Living in the Country: Imagining Development and Remaking the Black Rural South, 1933-1986

Hickmott, Alec, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Harold, Claudrena, Department of History, University of Virginia

An intellectual and institutional history of African American development efforts in the twentieth century, Living in the Country: Imagining Development and Remaking the Black Rural South, 1933-1986 traces how a coalition of activists, intellectuals and businessmen sought to address the longstanding marginalization of rural black communities in the American South. Beginning in the New Deal era—or alternatively, as I argue, at the dawn of the “Age of Development”—this study examines how agricultural modernization and rural enterprise came to be understood as the sine qua non of racial empowerment. Through cooperative agricultural initiatives, land retention efforts, rural industrialization and the creation of new black-controlled financial institutions, this coalition sought to establish a new geography of regional development that could affirm the material aspirations of communities which had long existed under the heel of Jim Crow capitalism.

Primarily, this study examines how the African American freedom struggle was shaped by—and responded to—the policies, discourses and material consequences of economic modernization in the rural South. It explores how various African American intellectuals and activists, who collectively comprised a tradition of thought and practice I term “black developmentalism,” imagined a future economic order in the shadow of the plantation. Crucially, they articulated a vision of black economic modernity defined by a liberation from the structures of subordination that had historically governed black economic life in the countryside. As both a political project and claim-making strategy, black developmentalism promised to address material inequality while holding American liberalism accountable to its central promises of universal equality and economic security. Black developmentalism’s allure also lay in its political legibility to liberals ostensibly committed to race-neutral economic growth. Yet black developmentalism was also a heretical project; a crucial dimension of African American freedom struggle, it consistently exposed the intimate ties between racial inequality, agricultural enterprise, regional development, and the modern liberal state. As such, this dissertation is also a story about the consistent neglect of African American developmental aspirations, and a case study in the ways the emancipatory potential of a supposed human universal—“development”—was circumscribed by the endemic, racialized conflicts over power, resources and property at the heart of modern American life.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
African American, development, capitalism, race, political economy, agriculture, American South
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