For Hawa Allan, history is a recurring nightmare. “Does this sound dramatic?” she asks in the beginning of her book Insurrection: Rebellion, Civil Rights, and the Paradoxical State of Black Citizenship. “I don’t care, because it’s true.”
Allan is a lawyer, but also a writer of fiction and poetry. She is a lecturer at the New School in New York City, as well as a prolific essayist, contributing to a wide array of online publications. Her straddling of these many different worlds is reflected in Insurrection, which is equal parts history and analysis, and deeply personal narrative and reflection.
Although the focus of the book is the history of the Insurrection Act, Allan digresses frequently. She lists a plethora of events to research further, mostly atrocities committed by proto-American settlers, such as Kieft’s War and Bacon’s Rebellion. She discusses the Second Amendment, challenging its modern understanding as the right of individuals to bear arms, and suggesting instead that it codifies state militias, which have since given way to the National Guard. She even ruminates on the word “peace,” referencing Martin Luther King Jr.’s redefinition of “suppressed conflict”; the instatement of a social order where, for many, violence is not only the headline-grabbing outbursts of violent crime but also the drab daily grind of poverty and hunger. She points out the hypocrisy of the conservative devotion to federalism by pointing out how quickly its staunchest advocates resort to state violence when their own interests are threatened.
Allan chronicles not just the history of the hundreds of years of racism on this continent, but pays special attention to the extraordinary events of the past several years, while linking them to the past. She recalls the election of President Obama, and both the tremendous hope and the ugly backlash it brought. She remembers the murder of George Floyd, and the summer of protests and reexamination of racism that followed. She dredges up the ugly memories of President Trump clearing Lafayette Square with flash-bang grenades to hold a photoshoot with a Bible. For those who may have felt disoriented by the daily barrage of surreal news during those times, Allan reminds us that such incidents have strong parallels in the recent past.
Like our narrative understanding of history itself, perhaps, Allan’s book is a series of vignettes, snapshots of significant happenings arranged in a roughly chronological order. Also like our history, it is a collection of disparate viewpoints, as Allan toggles between her own lived experiences and centuries-old historical events. She considers other voices and interpretations, and interpolates these more concrete happenings with analyses from philosophers and scholars. The result is a sprawling, yet personal, meditation on the history of the rights of black citizens in America.
In her chapter on code-switching, for example, she alternates between personal experiences and historical events, the dual nature of the narrative referencing the dual nature of the subject. But her meditation on duality continues, segueing from code-switching to the dual identity of black people under early U.S. law as both people and property. Later, she touches on the ability of white people to be collectively called “the people,” or, when the connotation is negative, “the masses.” That her writing is structured to reflect what she is talking about is both a fascinating twist and a comforting literary device–this book is easy to read, because Allan so often alternates her tone. Although the nightmarish events of history tend to repeat themselves, we have a power to shape our understanding of, and to learn from this history by building a narrative. One way to contribute to this collective narrative is by helping to define its terms. In the end, Allan’s struggle is to “name the world.” Insurrection is Allan’s argument to reconsider the meaning of words such as “peace,” “silence,” and “order.” While navigating some of America’s most dramatic history, it resonates with Allan’s essential, personal truth.
Insurrection: Rebellion, Civil Rights, and the Paradoxical State of Black Citizenship
by Hawa Allan
W. W. Norton & Company
Published January 4th, 2021