African American Studies Settler Colonialism and African Americans
Tiffany King
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 June 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0071


Emerging from the ranks of white settler scholars in Australia and New Zealand in the mid-2000s, the discourse of settler colonialism has become the “official” idiolect with substantial influence in the social sciences and the humanities. The term settler colonialism circulated in Native studies, more specifically in Haunani K. Trask’s book From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawai‘i (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1993) before white settler scholars reintroduced and repackaged the term in the first decade of the 21st century (see the journal Settler Colonial Studies, edited by Lorenzo Veracini and Edward Cavanagh) and asserted it as an irreducible form of colonial power. The “new” settler colonialism focused on the ways that the conflict over land structured a violent antagonism between settlers and indigenous peoples. This paradigm shift calls attention to the distinction between colonial relations, in which the colonizer and settler displace the indigenous population through violence and remain on the land, as opposed to franchise colonialism, in which the colonizer remains (abroad) in the metropole and establishes control through an extensive and diffuse network of repressive and discursive measures of colonial power (sometimes including native elites as proxy). The theoretical preoccupation of settler colonial studies has been overwhelmingly concerned with the native-settler binary. The native-settler binary constructs the primary antagonism under settler colonial relations as one between European (and other) settlers and indigenous peoples of the Americas (racialized as Amerindians) and the Polynesian and Malayan peoples of Oceania. Due to the field’s emphasis on the native-settler binary, it has been critiqued for its lack of attention to Africans and people of African descent in the Americas. Fields that have traditionally theorized colonialism as a broad and capacious formation that included material and discursive (power) domination have been compelled to embrace the “settler colonial” turn in critical theory. For example, Chicana/o studies, Asian American studies, postcolonial studies, and even Native studies have had to readjust in order to respond to the field’s narrow focus on elaborating the native-settler binary and contestations over land as the paradigmatic frames for mapping power in North America, the Caribbean, Latin America, Europe, and Israel. Similarly, the fields of African American studies, African diaspora studies, and Black studies have only recently integrated the discourse of “settler colonialism” into their scholarly traditions. While, Black and African diaspora studies have historically been attentive to issues concerning indigenous people, colonialism, and the intersections of native and black life, these studies have largely deployed and relied on colonialism as a theoretical frame. As multiple disciplines adjust to the “settler colonial turn,” the use of the term remains uneven and inconsistent across disciplines and fields of study. Searching for scholarship that exists at the intersections of—or that pairs the terms—settler colonialism and African Americans can be challenging. To date, few texts exist with the explicit aim of addressing “settler colonialism and African Americans.” The texts included in this article cut across disciplinary boundaries and represent diverse sources that include historiographies, theoretical and philosophical texts, edited anthologies, special issues of journals, blog posts, activist writings and statements, and annual reports of organizations.

General Overview

Since to date no book length monograph is devoted to the general topic of “settler colonialism and African Americans,” it is difficult to locate the junctures and locations where the analytic of “settler colonialism” meets up with the category “African Americans.” The existing texts that touch on, or partially address, “settler colonialism” and “African Americans,” span the disciplines of history, Native studies, American studies, Black studies, critical ethnic studies, cultural studies, cinema studies, and a forthcoming anthology that brings together scholar-activist writings on “anti-blackness and settler colonialism.” Wilderson 2010 analyzes the ways in which film exposes the distinct ontological positions of whiteness, indigeneity, and blackness in a settler colonial US context. Tiffany King’s dissertation brings black people into the orbit—or the center—of settler colonial studies (King 2013). In 2014, the open-access online journal Decolonization, Indigeneity, Education and Society organized a digital roundtable on the theme of “settler colonialism and anti-blackness” and solicited 1,000 word blog posts from scholars in exploring the intersection of settler colonialism and anti-black violence. Asaka 2017 is the first book-length treatment that directly addresses the ways that settler colonial logics imagined North America as a temperate, white only space that needed to expel black North Americans from its boundaries and relocate them to tropical spaces outside of North America.

  • Asaka, Ikuko. Tropical Freedom: Climate, Settler Colonialism, and Black Exclusion in the Age of Emancipation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822372752

    Tropical Freedom traces the emergence of a discourse of “tropicality” in the late 18th century as a way of removing free black labor residing in North America to tropical places, such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, the West Indies, and Central America, while reconfiguring North America and Britain as temperate and, therefore, zones for whites only.

  • King, Tiffany Jeannette. “In the Clearing: Black Female Bodies, Space and Settler Colonial Landscapes.” PhD diss., University of Maryland, 2013.

    This dissertation argues for theorizing black female bodies as a spatial trope and location where anti-blackness and settler colonialism meet in the Western Hemisphere. The dissertation uses black feminist theory, native feminist theory, and settler colonial theory as theoretical frames.

  • Wilderson, Frank B., III. Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822391715

    One of the first books to theorize the ontological constructions of humanness, half humanness, nonhumanness in a US context by exploring the construction of whiteness, indigeneity, and blackness in film. This triadic model has been followed by historians before, but Wilderson takes up this triad through approaches to, and critiques of, cultural studies, film, and psychoanalysis in Black studies.

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