Andrew Zimmerman. Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010. 416 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 (Jacobs University Bremen)
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.
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. 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. 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. 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.
. 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).
. 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).
. 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.
. Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987).
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Daniel Speich Chassé. Review of Zimmerman, Andrew, Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South.
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