The erosion of the racial frontier: settler colonialism and the history of black Montana, 1880-1930

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


From 1880-1910, Montana was home to one of the most vibrant and diverse African American communities in the Rocky Mountain West. By the onset of World War II, however, the black population had fallen by over fifty percent, and Montana was well on its way to being the least black state in the US by the twenty-first century. In The Erosion of the Racial Frontier, I argue that scholars of African American studies and the American West must consider the sedimented afterlife of US settler colonialism if those fields are to articulate a distinctly western narrative of African American history. My approach draws on colonial and settler colonial theories to examine the history of African Americans in Montana from 1880-1930. As a non-indigenous, non-white, community of color--or what Lorenzo Veracini would call 'subaltern exogenous others'--black westerners fall into an uncertain space in settler colonial theory. As an ongoing structure, settler colonialism continues after the violent appropriation of Indigenous lands appears to culminate. The thesis of The Erosion of the Racial Frontier is two-fold: The logic of settlement together with the logic of anti-blackness created distinctly western categories of racial exclusion that is evident in the archive of black Montana. This western, colonial racism acted as an erosive force across the state, targeting the stability and place identity of western black communities. Moreover, the society that developed in tandem with colonial erosion necessarily continues to live with the sedimented afterlife of settler colonialism. As such, the history of Black Montana can be understood as individual and collective experiences of thousands of black Montanans struggling against and subverting the settler colonial project in western North America.




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