KARIANN AKEMI YOKOTA. Unbecoming British: How Revolutionary America Became a Postcolonial Nation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xii, 368. $36.95. Hardcover. ISBN: 0190217871.

In Unbecoming British, historian Kariann Akemi Yokota takes as her subject the historical process of American identity formation across the revolutionary and new national periods, or what she calls “America’s postcolonial period.” Specifically, she traces the process through which English colonists created an “American national character” out of their colonial inheritances. She does this through material, visual, and cultural history rather than political history. As Yokota observes, the transition of English subjects to American citizens was rife with “tensions and contradictions” that historians can study through both “lives of people engaged in missionary, scientific, and commercial pursuits” and “objects as varied as maps, imported and domestic artworks, and botanical prints.” Foremost among these tensions is the idea that, while elite American nationalists embraced aspects of their new identity such as their country’s raw materials, the superiority of whiteness, an increasingly democratic political structure, and a reflex for self-defensive intellectual arguments, “they could not relinquish their cultural attachments to the refined objects and courtly trappings of the British monarchy.” In short, while the political process of “unbecoming British” might have culminated with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the cultural process was just beginning.[1]

Yokota approaches her topic with a unique methodology. Inspired by a lineage of scholars who have used material culture for primary sources, beginning with Richard Bushman’s The Refinement of America, Yokota sets out to demonstrate the cultural angst that American nationalists had in regards to their dependency upon Europe through objects and international trade. Yet Yokota goes even further than many of her predecessors in defining an object. She declares objects as both tangible and intangible, provided that they “can be traded on the open market.” In this way, intellectual “objects” like Enlightenment knowledge about geography, medicine, race, and natural history, as well as scholars educated in British institutions and then exported to the Americas, take their place alongside raw and processed physical objects like maps, manuscripts, cartouches, tea, clothes, statues, earthenware, scientific equipment, bones, pelts, and plants. This allows Yokota to explore how “Old-” and “New World” materials, such as maps made by Jedidiah Morse or artifacts displayed at Thomas Jefferson’s home in Monticello, can be interpreted as sites of American identity formation. Such items reflected the angst of American intellectuals who resented being viewed as inferior, degenerate, savage, barbaric, dependent, or derivative in relation to Europe.[2]

In Unbecoming British, Yokota opts for topical rather than chronological organization. A breakdown of her five main chapters shows the range of evidence that she employs. Her first chapter focuses on geographic representations of the world as sites where American patriots attempted to literally and metaphorically contest their place in a British intellectual tradition that viewed them as marginal. The second chapter focuses on a “culture of insecurity” that revolved around the importation of foreign consumer goods and their hindering effect on industries of domestic manufacturing. The third chapter—perhaps Yokota’s most innovative contribution—examines the struggle of nationalists to distinguish themselves from Britain in the context of their competitive trade with Canton, China. The fourth chapter focuses on a transatlantic trade in intangible and tangible objects related to the sciences, as well as the American intellectuals like William Bartram who pursued these studies. The final chapter ties this struggle for American cultural independence from Britain to a discussion of racial hegemony in the early United States. Yokota argues that the idea of whiteness was the ultimate “property” that joined Anglophone people together across their revolutionary divide. It allayed white fears about the alleged racial degeneracy of the American environment and emerged as “the foundational symbol of national belonging in postcolonial America.”[3]

For her theoretical foundation, Yokota draws upon a variety of postcolonial theorists, from Partha Chatterjee to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, that are not usually discussed in early American history. She cites the literature on mimicry from Homi Bhabha and V.S. Naipaul, for instance, to emphasize her thesis that American patriots were animated by the same type of cultural insecurities in reference to their former colonizers that animated revolutionaries of other postcolonial societies. Sometimes, there is an almost-heretical quality to the way Yokota plays with and inverts conventional historiographical boundaries. In one part, for example, she interprets the post-revolutionary American elite—many of them rich, white, male slave-owners like Timothy Dwight—in the context of W.E.B. Du Bois’ century-old theory of “double consciousness,” an idea intended to capture the ambivalent and insecure position of black slave descendants in a racist American society. Yet, as Yokota explains, she does not adapt these postcolonial theories in order to support an “optimistic” or “triumphal view of American history” that will ignore, excuse, or overshadow the continued legacy of racial oppression in the country. Rather, she does so to highlight the ways that whiteness and white racism in the American republic fermented out of “postcolonial anxiety.” That being said, one gets the sense that readers of Unbecoming British will be cleanly divided over its central conceit: whether or not they agree that it is appropriate to apply postcolonial theory to early American history.[4]

Of course, Yokota anticipates critiques to her book’s central conceit that the United States should be understood as a postcolonial nation, and she hedges her bets. “To include it without qualification in the traditionally defined ‘family’ of postcolonial nations,” she writes, “would be a mistake given the geographical, historical, and temporal differences” between the United States and “commonly recognized postcolonial societies” elsewhere. This statement is mysterious, as the differences alluded to here are assumed throughout the book and never explained. Furthermore, Yokota neither engages with two literatures on the topic—creolization and settler colonialism—nor attempts to compare other creole revolutionary elites from history, such as those of the Caribbean or continental Latin America. A few footnotes referencing Benedict Anderson and George Daniels reveal that Yokota sees real similarities between Anglo-American creole leaders and Latin American creole leaders; however, readers are left wanting for any kind of direct comparison. This is more than a minor absence. The effect is to mitigate against Yokota’s primary intention, potentially increasing the reader’s sense that the American story is exceptional. Perhaps a slightly more hemispheric or vertical approach in the style of Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra’s Puritan Conquistadors would have helped Unbecoming British avoid this pitfall.[5]

Perhaps most intriguing, Unbecoming British raises yet does not answer a question of chronology: if and when the postcolonial period of the United States ends. In various places, Yokota makes reference to the fact that European institutions and their intellectual products—like the Oxford English Dictionary and the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge—are still considered to be quintessential sources of authority in the United States. In addition, American historians may not be able to read Unbecoming British without thinking twice about the extent to which European intellectual discourses—the Annales School of France, the social history of Britain, the microhistory of Italy, the historicism of Germany and Austria—have held and still hold a position of privilege within their fields. Indeed, the syllabi of many introduction to historiography classes at American institutions are tangible and intangible objects that embody both the postcolonial identity of the United States and what Yokota calls “the legacy of European civilization.” Looking over these objects inspires contemplation about whether the American postcolonial era is over, and whether the bonds of whiteness formed in the early republic are not, in certain ways, continuing to do their work in the present.[6]


[1] Kariann Akemi Yokota, Unbecoming British: How Revolutionary America Became a Postcolonial Nation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 8, 11-13, 14-15, 18.

[2] Ibid. 248, 340.

[3] Ibid. 64, 153-155, 218-219, 225.

[4] Ibid. 239, 246, 249-250, 273, 341.

[5] Ibid. 12, 331, 250.

[6] Ibid. 12, 209, 219, 336.