Being Black

Linsey Jackson

America is a country of many races, cultures, and ethnicities. With the exception of Native Americans, all the current inhabitants of America immigrated from other countries. Robert Blauner, an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, explains how the experience of the European immigrant groups was turned into a model for how all ethnic groups assimilated into American culture. Typically, after one generation of immigrants came to America, the next generation began to combine old country ways and American ways to create a fragmented and conflicted version of the traditional culture that still provided a sense of community. As time went on, the traditional culture declined and became more influenced and intermingled with American values, creating an ethnic-American culture. The different immigrants and generations that came after assimilated into America by adapting and changing their culture and accepting new American ways of life. The process of assimilation tends to contain two variables: traditional culture and the American way of life. Immigrants go from having an extra-national status to ethnic group assimilation. A pattern of the third generation reasserting ethnic identity has been noticed as well. At the same time as the new ethnicity is adapting to America, America is adopting the ethnicities culture into American culture.

Very little of the described process of assimilation applies to the experience of slaves coming to America. As Blauner states, traditional culture and social organization were destroyed in the very process by which Africans became Americans. Africans were taken from their homeland and brought to America around 1619, when a Dutch ship brought 20 enslaved Africans to the Virginia colony at Jamestown. Nearly 240 years passed until the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution officially ended slavery in 1865.

Instead of coming into America with a national identity, slaves were deprived of any African culture, including their name, which destroyed the meaning and relevance of the traditional African identity. Instead of cultural assimilation, slaves underwent “forced acculturation” without the same social and economic equality that other minorities had in their assimilation process. However, during slavery, the Black population began their own culture building process. This new race of people consisted of a mix of African descent, from which part of Africa would most likely be unknown due to the lack of paperwork, a mix of European descent due to the frequent rape of African women by their masters or other Caucasian men, and a mix of Native American descent, who took in Africans, some of them run-away slaves, as sexual and marital partners that resulted in a population of mixed Native American and African ancestry, as Rebecca Faery describes in Cartographies of Desire.

As this new, mixed population began to create a culture of its own, they were going from being African to becoming American as well as creating their own identity. These two processes are almost contradictory yet they are parallel. Another complicating factor in the identity of slaves and their descendants is the variety of social and historical conditions that have influenced the culture. Black culture is much more complicated than the two variable process of assimilation that most immigrants went through. By the end of slavery, the African culture among former slaves was merely an influence on a new emerging race.

As this new culture emerged and developed, the identity of Blacks in America became less associated with Africa. As Rebecca Faery mentions in Cartographies of Desire, when Africans were brought to America they “became Black.” Robert Blauner identifies three major sources of Black culture in America. The first great source of Black culture is slavery. This is where ecstatic religion, mother-led families, anti-white attitudes, and the yearning for freedom and autonomy came about. The second influence on Black culture in America is the subculture of the South. Features such as religion, “soul food,” and language all reflect Southern characteristics. The Emancipation is identified as the third source of Black identity in America. With the promises of freedom in the North some Blacks abandoned the South only to find a life of poverty in the working class. Others stayed in the South and continued to work in the fields as sharecroppers, still living in poverty.

Later in history came the Harlem Renaissance, further shaping the newly established culture. Albert Murray emphasizes the Harlem Renaissance's influence on Black culture in The Omni-Americans. Writers including James Weldon Johnson, Alain Locke, Walter White, Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, and Arna Bontemps; artists including Aaron Douglas, Palmer Hayden, Richmond Barthe, and Augusta Savage; and many performers and entertainers worked towards self-definition of Black identity and Black heritage. The music of King Oliver, Bessie Smith, W.C. Handy, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson, and hundreds of others created the Jazz movement and worked towards Black identity by impressing an affirmative consciousness of blackness not only upon other Negroes and upon white Americans, but upon the world at large as never before.

Despite this creation of history and culture among Blacks, Black history would be non-existent if none of it was ever researched and recorded. In Creating Black Americans, Nell Painter identifies Blacks in the nineteenth century that attained higher education as the creators of African-American history. Without the advantages of institutional support, these people made Black history as a labor of love. George Washington Williams, who was an Ohio clergyman and lawyer, created and published the first systematic African-American history in two volumes: History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880. Instead of beginning the history in Africa, he began in the Western Hemisphere. As a Union Army veteran Williams also published the book History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion. Williams created a wave of interest in the advancement of the study of Black history: by the early twentieth century clubs such as the Negro Society for Historical Research were being created to do just that.

Painter says Black scholars with and without formal training educated African Americans about Black history. Painter identifies Arthur Alfonso Schomburg, one of the founders of the Negro Society for Historical Research, as the leading collector of books by and about Black people in the early twentieth century. Schomburg made focusing on the diasporic nature of Black history a major point. Schomburg was also part of the American Negro Academy, which included numerous highly educated Black men such as Alexander Crummell and activist W.E.B. Du Bois. In the early twentieth century, W.E.B. Du Bois, along with other scholars, contributed several books tracing African-American history back to Africa to the collection of Black history. Du Bois’s The Negro and Black Folk Then and Now: An Essay in the History and Sociology of the Negro Race and Carter G. Woodson’s The African Background Outlined are some of these books. Carter G. Woodson, a professor at Howard University, made other great progress toward Black history; he founded and permanently presided over the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (which now still exists but as the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History) and also created Negro History Week. Painter illustrates the importance of the work of William Leo Hansberry, another Black scholar. “William Leo Hansberry, another Howard University Professor, taught courses that situated Black Americans in what would come to be called an African diasporic framework. Hansberry’s teaching laid the intellectual groundwork for the interdisciplinary black studies movement of the 1960s and 1970s.” These early twentieth century scholars, books, and institutions explaining Black Americans’ past in Africa and in America increased African Americans’ knowledge of themselves and of Africa.

Now that this new slavery-independent culture was created, recorded, and established, there was a question of identity; what do the descendants of slaves that have now been in America for centuries identify as? They were no longer Africans and had a new culture of their own but what was this culture? Slave descendants in the nineteenth century labeled themselves as “Negro” or “Colored” as they began to distance themselves from Africa. During this time Black artists and writers produced vague, biblical, or, most often, non-existent depictions of Africa, as stated by Nell Painter in Creating Black Americans. The term for slave descendants then changed to “Black” and now the politically correct “African-American.” But the term “African-American” is unsettling for some, as it reflects a false sense of attachment and identification with Africa. If one is born in Mexico, immigrates to America, and becomes an American citizen, for example, what is this person called? A Mexican-American. Same for any other immigrant or child of an immigrant that is now American. So if an African who is from Africa moves to America and becomes an American citizen, he or she would then be an African-American. People who are directly from Africa and people who are descendants of slaves and Caucasians are two completely different races. John McWhorter explains in the Los Angeles Times: “Modern America is home now to millions of immigrants who were born in Africa. Their cultures and identities are split between Africa and the United States. They have last names like Onwughalu and Senkofa. They speak languages like Wolof, Twi, Yoruba and Hausa and speak English with an accent. They were raised on African cuisine, music, dance and dress styles, customs and family dynamics. Their children often speak or at least understand their parents' native language.” Living descendants of slaves, however, do not know any African ancestors, nor do they know where in the large continent of Africa their descendants are from. Living descendants of slaves speak English, are most likely Christian and eat American cuisine. The term African-American caught on so fast after Jesse Jackson’s proposal of it, McWhorter states, because it recognizes that we are neither African nor White. It is a progression from the demeaning terms “Negro” and “Colored” used before and recognizes the progress our ancestors have made after being treated like animals for so many years. However, with the rising number of Africans immigrating to America, it is their right to be called African-American. McWhorter says that the term as it applies to slave descendants implies that our history is made up of “slave ships, plantations, lynching, fire hoses in Birmingham, and then South Central and that we need to look back to Mother Africa to feel good about ourselves.”

Instead of identifying with the negative aspects of how we got to America, we should identify with all of the positive things slave descendants have accomplished in America. Let’s recognize people such as Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Du Bois, Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wright and Thurgood Marshall, none born in Africa, and all deeply American people. The roots of slave descendants trace back to working class, segregated America, not Africa. For that reason the term Black is preferred among some now. Although the term is not perfect, it carries the pride and meaning of history we have made in America as our own people.

So some dislike the term “Black” while others dislike the term “African-American.” Neither term is perfect and each term captures a separate aspect of the culture. What should we be called then? That is one answer there is not a clear answer to. However Michele Elam offers a new perspective of how races should be identified in The Souls of Mixed Folk. As we move towards a new “cosmopolitan,” “racial ‘authenticity,’ defensive purity and antiquated tradition” will be replaced by hybridity and a mixed race identity.

A mixed race identity seems to be a good solution for my personal identification; I feel like me identity cannot be defined by just one rigid race. Race identity is something I have always questioned. My transition to college into an environment containing cultures from all over the world made me question my personal identity even further. All of a sudden it seemed as if everyone had ancestry that they can trace back one or two generations to a country they identify with; everyone except me, that is. I have never been in contact with so many African people that can name where they are from. I felt a major lack of culture. However with my research for this paper I have come to the conclusion that I do not have a lack of culture; saying I have a lack of culture would take away from the progress my ancestors made after slavery to gain equal rights and it would take away from the unique music and food that is associated with Blacks and it would take away from all of the amazing things descendants of slaves have done. I cannot name what exact race I am or where exactly my ancestors came from but I can tell you that my grandfather marched during the civil rights movement, I can relate to jazz music and poetry from the Harlem Renaissance and the soul food both my Grandmothers make so well and that is enough culture for me.

Works Cited

Blauner, Robert. "The Question of Black Culture." Black America. By John F. Szwed. New York: Basic Books, 1970. 110-20. Print.

Elam, Michele. "Mixed Race in the Post-Race Era." Introduction. The Souls of Mixed Folk Race, Politics, and Aesthetics in the New Millennium. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2011. 1-26. Print.

Faery, Rebecca Blevins. Cartographies of Desire: Captivity, Race, and Sex in the Shaping of an American Nation. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999. Print.

Mc Whorter, John H. "Why I'm Black, Not African American." Manhattan Institute. LA Times, 08 Sept. 2004. Web. 11 Oct. 2011. .

Murray, Albert. The Omni-Americans: New Perspectives on Black Experience and American Culture. New York: Outerbridge & Dienstfrey; Distributed by E. P. Dutton, 1970. Print.

Painter, Nell Irvin. "Africa and Black Americans." Creating Black Americans. New York: Oxford, 2006. 3-20. Print.