Africans in America and the Quest for Identity

As I write this article, I am just returning from my annual visit to the International African Arts Festival in Brooklyn, New York.  Founded in 1971 as the African Street Festival by activists associated with the Nationalist organization The East, the four-day cultural extravaganza attracts hundreds of thousands of attendees each year. Similarly, the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, which also occurs in July, has grown into a huge event.  Whenever I attend these festivals, I feel like I’m bathing in "blackness" – immersed in an extraordinary variety of wares from around the Pan African world, food galore, African centered edu-tainment, and a sea of Black people!


The festivals also cause me to reflect on the sometimes tortuous quest to find the appropriate identity to define ourselves as formerly enslaved people in this country.  That quest is an integral part of "cherishing a friendly union with ourselves" as discussed in a recent article. If full freedom/liberation were a reality, a discussion of the historical quest for identity would be a mere academic exercise. But, the state of emergency afflicting Black poor and working people and youth/young people in America’s "dark ghettos" renders this a very important subject. I have a sense that some of the self-destructive behavior contributing to the violence and fratricide in the inner-cities is attributable to a lack of a sense of who we are as a people and a pride in our history and heritage.


Today Black and African identify is taken for granted. It’s just a fact of life. However, historically developing a comfort level with Black/African identity was the result of intense and often painful internal struggles.  More than any other ethnic group or nationality that arrived on these shores, the question /issue of identity for formerly enslaved Africans was of paramount importance.  No other ethnic group/nationality had to endure a systematic effort to wipe out their history, culture and identity. Other groups, e.g., the British, Scots, Irish, Germans, Italians, Poles came with these vital elements in tact thereby, easing the process of creating new communities in a strange land.  For these groups, cultural continuation was the basis for cohesion/unity that enabled them to develop an economic base in their communities and eventually begin to contest for political power as part of the process of fully integrating into American society with dignity and respect. This was not the case for people of African descent.


As the late Queen Mother Audley Moore used to teach, enslaved Africans were subjected to a sustained process of "de-Africanization" as part of a system of control imposed by the slave master.  We were taught that our skin color was a mark of inferiority and our African origins, religion, music and customs a sign of savagery.  Black people were uncivilized and therefore should respect their European slave masters and White people in general at all times.  Moreover, it is difficult for people to understand the psycho-cultural impact of being a Black/African person in a European/White society/nation where the symbols and imagery of "white and black" re-enforce the idea of white superiority and black inferiority. In the English language white is always used to depict the positive while black virtually always denotes the negative. Dr. Martin Luther King once pointed this out in one of his speeches. You have references like the "black sheep of the family," or "behind the eight ball."   "Whiteness" is a sign of purity and good. "Darkness is a sign of impurity and evil. The Angels and good people are white while one imagines the devil, villains and bad people draped in black.  A "little white lie" is okay. Put the adjective "black" before anything and it intensifies the sense of the ominous, disastrous or catastrophic. Not even the food we eat escapes the black/white, positive/negative, superior/inferior dichotomy – there’s "angel food cake" and "devil’s food cake!"


It would be somewhat amusing if these matters were not so serious and sinister as it relates to their psycho-cultural impact on people of African descent and our painful quest to discover and affirm identity and culture as part of building a new community in a strange and hostile land. This question of identity was also complicated by voluntary and involuntary "race-mixing" or miscegenation. As Queen Mother Moore and other historians have noted, slave masters had free rein with African women.  The consequence of this cohabitation was off-spring who were sometimes "light, bright and damn near white."  Mullatoes in the race contributed to the debate among our forebears as to whether we were African, Colored or Negro.


In a real sense, however,  the debate and struggle was not just about terminology; it was about how to uplift, encourage, motivate, inspire  a despised people, disconnected from their ancestral homeland – many of whom had internalized the myth of White superiority and Black inferiority. This is why from our earliest days in America we find leaders like Richard Allen, Rev. David Nickens,  Henry Highland Garnet, David Walker, Frederick Douglass,  Bishop Henry McNeil Turner and numerous others heralding the role of Black people in the Bible, the glorious history of ancient Africa  and the great  empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhai.  Whether African, Colored, Negro was their preferred identity, they were aware of the need to rehabilitate the self-image and self-esteem of a battered people.  This was also one of the central tasks of Carter G. Woodson’s seminal work, The Mis-education of the Negro.


The search for identity has been a persistent dimension of the Black Freedom Struggle in America — the quest to create a new community from disparate ethnic groups, build social, economic and political institutions and wage the struggle for freedom/liberation within a Euro-centric, white supremacist society. Although today to be Black/African is non-controversial, unfortunately, there are vast numbers of our people who have no clue about the history/heritage and legacy of struggle associated with their identity. To be Black/African has lost its political potency as a weapon in the Black Freedom Struggle.  Indeed, the "n-word" has even resurfaced as a "term of endearment" among our youth because of their ignorance or disregard for the negative history attached to that identification.     


All of this suggests that a part of the" friendly union with ourselves" must involve a renewed emphasis on mass  education about what it means to be Black/African in the 21st century in terms of our struggle for full freedom/liberation. Those among us who have achieved relative success must come to view their identity as Black/African as part of a legacy of struggle that demands that they be "of the race and for the race" as it relates to connecting to and fighting for the well being of the "have nots" in our communities.   And, as we seek to educate/mobilize/organize the least among us, they must be armed with the power of positive identification with Black/African as a motivating force for social justice and social change.  We must move beyond Black/African as a commonplace, cosmetic proposition to once again viewing identity as a vital element in community-building/nation-building and an indispensible weapon in the struggle for full freedom/liberation.


Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website www.ibw21.org and www.northstarnews.com . To send a message, arrange media interviews or speaking engagements, Dr. Daniels can be reached via email at [email protected].






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