Author Interview: Stacey Smith

Author Interview: Stacey Smith

Today we share an interview with Stacey L. Smith, who published an article in the December 2023 JCWE, titled “The Colored American Asiatic Traveler”: Peter K. L. Cole and American Empire in Japan.” Stacey L. Smith is an associate professor of history at Oregon State University. She is the author of Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction (2013). At present, she is currently writing a book on African Americans on the Pacific Coast of North America.

What interested you in contributing to this special forum on the transpacific connections to the Civil War era? 

My main research interest has always been to bridge the fields of Civil War era history and the history of the American West. I have long argued that US territories along the Pacific have played important, but largely unexplored, roles in the histories of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. I am especially interested in unearthing how the transformation of racialized notions of citizenship, one of the major outcomes of the Civil War and Reconstruction, was the product of events occurring in the West as well as in the North and in the South.  People from Asia, the Pacific Islands, and Latin America who migrated to and across the North American West via the Pacific Ocean were critical actors in reshaping US immigration and naturalization laws, labor policies, and international relations in this period. Laws targeting these immigrants, including the 1870 Naturalization Act, the 1875 Page Law, and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, significantly redefined who was eligible for US citizenship, who was a “free laborer,” and even who could live in the United States without facing constant harassment. Looking at the fight over Pacific citizenship alongside the struggle for African American citizenship rights in the South brings to light the complex, interwoven histories of North, South, and West.

What are the key takeaways that you hope that readers might gain from your article on Peter Cole’s travels to Japan?

Peter Cole was a free African American man who traveled around the world and learned half a dozen languages, including Cantonese and Japanese. He lived in China in Japan for almost two decades between the 1850s and 1870s, with his longest residence being in the treaty port of Yokohama, Japan, between 1866 and 1873. He also worked for US consuls and foreign ministers in both places while running his own merchant business and writing for English-language newspapers in Yokohama and San Francisco.

Cole’s unique life serves as a vehicle for understanding African Americans’ fraught relationship with US imperialism and settler colonialism. Cole very much understood himself as an agent of US empire in the Pacific. He envisioned himself working alongside his white compatriots to open Japanese markets to American commerce, and to “civilize” and Christianize Japanese people. His writings frequently elided notions of racial difference between Black and white people while widening African Americans’ distance from Japanese nationals. He often identified himself and his fellow Black Yokohamans simply as “Americans,” “foreigners,” or even “Europeans,” who were diametrically opposed to Japanese “natives” in terms of religion, education, modernity, and civilization.

My central argument is that despite Cole’s participation in American imperial projects, and some initial acceptance of Black Yokohamans into the white community in Japan, white supremacist settler colonial logics ultimately excluded him from benefiting from the spoils of empire. Once back in the United States, Cole tried for years to get a position in the diplomatic corps of the US State Department. He was repeatedly overlooked for any positions, he said, because of his color. Despite his high level of literacy, his cosmopolitan experiences, and his multilingualism, he was eventually reduced to working as a manual laborer, steamship steward, and boardinghouse keeper. Cole’s life ultimately gives us new insights into Black Americans’ complex relationship with settler colonialism. They could be both agents of empire and denied belonging in an American settler state built fundamentally on notions of white domination over non-white others.

After this forum, what’s next? Can you provide our readers with a preview of your current research project? 

My current book project is about African American civil rights activists in California from the Gold Rush of 1848 through the end of Reconstruction. I look at how African Americans fought for access to public education, testimony rights, suffrage, and eventually the desegregation of all public facilities. California is an unusual setting to study the nineteenth-century Black freedom struggle because African Americans were the smallest racial minority there behind Chinese nationals, Mexicans, and Native Americans. Whenever they challenged race-based exclusion, California African Americans had to maneuver carefully around anti-Chinese, anti-Indian, and anti-Mexican racism to make a special claim to citizenship based on their own American birth, civilization, and Christianity. They weren’t often successful in this endeavor. California refused to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment and outright rejected the Fifteenth Amendment, mostly on the grounds that these pieces of legislation would enfranchise Chinese people in addition to African Americans. My goal is to explore African Americans’ distinctive tactics, obstacles, arguments, and politics for combatting anti-Black racism in the most racially diverse place in nineteenth-century America.

My work on Peter Cole emerged from this project. As I studied African Americans on the Pacific Coast, I became increasingly intrigued by the presence of so many Black world travelers in places such as San Francisco, Portland (Oregon), and Victoria (British Columbia). My next book project beyond my current one will explore African American migration to and across the Pacific Ocean in the nineteenth-century. Using biographies of Black transpacific migrants such as Peter Cole, it will analyze African Americans’ relationship to US and British imperial projects in Asia, North America, and Polynesia.

 Thank for these responses!

Hilary N. Green

Hilary N. Green is the James B. Duke Professor of Africana Studies at Davidson College. She previously worked in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama where she developed the Hallowed Grounds Project. She earned her M.A. in History from Tufts University in 2003, and Ph.D. in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2010. Her research and teaching interests include the intersections of race, class, and gender in African American history, the American Civil War, Reconstruction, as well as Civil War memory, African American education, and the Black Atlantic. She is the author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (Fordham, 2016).

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