What it means to be Black in America is contingent on both race and class; Race has been the primary factor used to shape the identity of African Americans within society and is equally responsible for their lack thereof. Despite progression Blacks are still subjected to socially constructed biases and racialized discourse; both equally responsible for the Black culture that is characterized by suppression, oppression, segregation, and exploitation. In the midst of reeling from the effects of Americas slavery past, identity remains a major concern. As seen with the Great Migration and ideologies of Afro-Centrism, Black Nationalism, and Afro-Futurism, Blacks have taken strides to create a sense of belonging and establish an identity of their own. This essay aims to analyze the evolution of the African American identity as it has shifted from tribalism, to an identity plagued by slavery and dehumanization, to the newfound identity of the new Negro based in enlightenment, art, and the African Diaspora.
The daunting history of the transatlantic slave trade shaped and continues to shape the experience of African Americans in society. From the onset of the slave trade, Africans were ascribed as an inferior species and forcibly removed from their homelands and sold into slavery. The enslaved were now disconnected from the lands that bore them and life as they knew it before bondage in its entirety. As slavery progressed aspects of their culture, religions, and customs were completely replaced by those of their slave masters. Many slaves tried to cling to their tribal identities, but as they were separated from their tribe members this proved to be difficult.
Slave masters took advantage of this and continued to exploit slaves, often pitting tribe against tribe, causing a rift among slaves and ultimately isolation. In doing so, slave masters gained absolute control over the slaves and enforced and reinforced the notion that slaves identities consisted of being nothing more than personal property. However, Federalist No. 54 contested this notion and insisted that slaves were still human beings regardless of being thought of as less than human.
Slavery continued until being abolished in 1865 essentially granting slaves their freedom however, African Americans were ostracized and continuously exploited at the hands of their White counterparts, the superior race. Just as with slavery each aspect of African Americans lives including their education, music, literature, and art was overrun by people who looked nothing like them. Blacks were determined to establish themselves and create an authentic identity; if they did not relocate they would remain without an identity of their own.
The Great Migration characterizes the time in which Blacks relocated from the South to the North as they sought after refuge from racialized systems of oppression. Once settled, Harlem became Blacks place of solace and rebirth where they reveled in the opportunity to reinvent themselves as people and no longer chattle slaves.
The birth of the Harlem Renaissance gave rise to the period of enlightenment and advancement for the new Negro. During this period of time many prominent Black writers, poets, entertainers, and philosophers alike sought to make their voices heard with their newfound freedom of expression. Through the art of their own storytelling Blacks found a new way of thinking and created a distinctive culture amongst themselves where they were no longer immobilized and instead thrived.
After so many years of oppression, Blacks were finally able to define the world on their own terms. Blacks sought to undermine White supremacist structures that were systemically imposed to oppress and suppress them by acting on what was in the best interest of Black people. To do so Blacks fostered the ideologies of Afro-Centrism which according to Gyamfi, is the belief that Blacks should reaffirm a new way of perceiving information solely based on the Black perspective (Gyami, 2018). It proposes that Blacks should examine knowledge from an African point of view, suggesting that matters be discussed and solved based on an African standpoint. Gyamfi states that Afro-centrism is a rational paradigm that provides privilege to African centricity based on the context of the historical experiences that African Americans have undergone at the hands of Whites (Gyamfi, 2018).
This paradigm challenges the viewpoints of Euro-centricity and its authority on Blacks as a result of the slave trade and racism Blacks were exposed to. This paradigm further emphasizes on the elimination of the idea that Euro-Centrism is the standard which Black people should vehemently disregard. The focus of Afro-centrism is to decolonize the minds of African Americans as a whole by continuing to remove them from the shackles and slave mentality that has been imposed on them while simultaneously stimulating them to revel in their African-ness.
Though principles of Afro-Centrism bolstered the need for African Americans to celebrate their African-ness there was more to be done for Blacks to be progressive.
A path of progressiveness meant complete separation from all the racial, political, social, and economical hindrances of the Western society as outlined in the philosophies of Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism. Black Nationalism was founded on the need to acquire African liberation and unanimity through the provision of emphasis on the need and importance of separation and independence of Blacks and take back the ownership of every individual’s community (Bangura p. 68-70). The ideas of Malcolm X were shared by Marcus Garvey’s concept of Pan Africanism which was developed to promote the separation of Blacks with the aim of consolidating the union of all people with African origin and descent (Bangura p. 68-70). The ideas of both Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey further pushed the narrative of realizing a greater sovereignty of people of African descent through the creation of settlements for Blacks alone.
If Blacks were to adhere to these practices and a newfound way of thinking then they would not be subjected to further exploitation at the hands of their White counterparts. Though they had differing beliefs, both Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey represented frameworks for approaching a new identity for African Americans.
By employing a new way of thinking, taking pride in themselves, their culture, and relishing in their African-ness separate from slavery Blacks have made tremendous strides for progression and Black sovereignty. By employing the use of frameworks such as Afro-Futurism Blacks have something more to aspire to in relation to their futures and progression. Afro-Futurism is defined as a synergy between science and fiction and the attention to African diaspora to empower black future (Morgan 20). It is an Afro-diasporic art formation and discourse which attempts to surpass the homogeneity of society. The concept of Afro-futurism offers an intact space for the analysis and the critique of normative structures within the society while encouraging African Americans to redefine themselves and providing space to do so (Morgan 20). Afro-Futurism facilitates the sovereign establishment of African Americans identities.
The slave trade initiated African Americans having their identities stripped from them and exposed them to a life of oppression and suppression. The journey to becoming visible and viable in society by re-establishing an identity of their own has been complex yet withstood the hands of time. The evolution of their identities has shifted from one of tribalism, to surviving slavery, to enlightenment and now one of advancement and progression. Though the journey does not conclude here Blacks can take pride in a reimagined future that is theirs for the imagining.
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