In reviewing my family lineage on ancestry.com I looked at the occupation of my ancestors and I can see that my mother and father’s generation is the first generation in my family to pursue jobs that require a 4 year college education. In reviewing obituaries, birth certificates, and other census type records I see that I came from a line of people who worked hard for the money they earned. My paternal grandfather was a welder, his father was a janitor, his father a blacksmith and his father a farmer and former slave. I was not as successful tracing my mother’s line, but I do know from speaking with my mother and grandparents that her father was a sharecropper. My mother remembers long hot days helping him pick cotton. Her family has always resided in the South whereas my father’s family moved North very shortly after slavery ended.
Slavery has permanently erased part of my history. It is not exactly apparent what country my ancestors came from. I can only rely on a DNA test taken by my father to show part of the history of my origins. Amazing and culturally diverse countries make up my background. The countries of Benin and Togo are the origins 35% of his DNA. Cameroon, Congo and the Southern Bantu people represent another 27% of his DNA. Other countries like the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Ghana, and Mali feature in his DNA also. Unfortunately, many details of my ancestors and exactly when these different people came together were lost during slavery. The legacy that slavery left me is that all these complex cultures do not influence my daily life. I am no more African than I am white. I see myself as American, specifically African American, so the history of the various cultures in my DNA is interesting but I do not relate, identify or align myself with them. My paper will focus solely on my African American heritage.
The oppression of the ancestors of African Americans started the moment they were captured and placed on slave boats. The text book for this course mentions that slaves were crammed in so tightly into the hulls of ships that it was impossible to prevent the spread of disease. The book also mentions that since they were cargo their loss overboard was covered by insurance not their natural deaths. This led to slaves being chained together and tossed overboard when they became ill. Upon arrival to the shores of their new homeland slaves faced the indignity of being sold to another person. After that the systemic repression of their home language, culture, and religion began. This led to the loss of African culture but began the creation of the new African American culture.
The African American people were and are still predominantly located in the South Eastern United States. This region of the United States was the location of the Southern plantation where slaves lived. As time went along and slavery was abolished then Jim Crow and segregation began. The urbanization that happened during World War II saw African Americans moving North to live in cities close to white citizens instead of rural areas. During this time public spaces were supposed to be separated by race, but equal. Often this was not the case. Places for African Americans were subpar compared to spaces for whites. .
In present day African Americans, we can see that the oppression due to race still has an effect. The past is coloring the present in that African Americans still think that the color of their skin and other race specific features will play a role in the oppression that they face. The United States has long been known for racial prejudice and preference for lighter skin is inextricably linked. African Americans as a people have many different shades of skin color that range from very light to very dark. African Americans have long held a peculiar relationship with skin color. Historically there has been a preference for lighter skin in the African American population. This preference is called colorism. (Harris, 2008) This preference for lighter skin is present in American society in general and has had an adverse affect on African American society. This preference has crossed the line from just a preference to affecting the lives of darker skinned African Americans.
Skin color has become a mark of desirability in the social and economic realm with lighter skin tones preferred. African Americans with darker skin have lower socioeconomic status than those with lighter skin. This is due partly to the way darker skin tone affects the chances of being employed. (Harris, 2008) Some modern stereotypes that other groups may hold about African Americans is that they are poor, lazy, drug using, aggressive and hostile. Blacks also have stereotypes about themselves, many of these stereotypes stem from the way that blacks are viewed by others in society. Group identity and how the group feels about itself has been found to be shaped by the societies culture. This has led to many African Americans internalizing some of the stereotypes mentioned above.
There are other challenges besides skin tone that divide African Americans. Some of the challenges are the desire by some to try to fit into white society by suppressing their own culture in favor of white culture. The converse of this idea also exists in black America. Some African Americans eschew all things white. They celebrate African American and African culture and make sure to stay in black places and spaces.
Religion is another area that African Americans can be divided some have stayed with the Christian religion that was passed down to them by whites during slavery. In Christian black churches, theology has been shaped over the decades by racism and the depiction of God as white. As mentioned before the relationship between blacks and white has been long, complex and not always positive. Some blacks have rejected the concept of God being white and refer to the Bible the text that says Jesus had dark skin and woolen hair. African Americans are also members of religions such as Islam. Another group of African Americans are not practicing the religions of various African Cultures.The religious views for an entire race of African Americans are diverse and they are not able to placed into one religious category.
Similar to other Americans, African Americans fit in various social classes. Dubois an early African American Activist stated that blacks have never been in just one social class. Even when there were slaves there were free blacks. When all blacks became emancipated and began to make their own way, they began to separate into more social classes. In 1899 Dubois wrote that there was four distinct social classes of blacks. His four classes were the vicious/criminal class, the poor, the working people, and anyone middle class and above. Since that time social class has evolved and changed, but there are still blacks who fit in these categories. This widening division in wealth caused a large divide in the black community. The expanding black middle class and they moved away from traditionally black neighborhoods leaving these neighborhoods comprised of poor blacks.
This weakened black social infrastructure in those neighborhoods and led to the remaining poor class being more disadvantaged. In recent years African Americans in the upper and middle classes began moving back to the old neighborhood and there has been a black gentrification in places such as Harlem. This movement has caused the displacement of lower income blacks. This has become a source of intragroup conflict in traditionally black neighborhoods. Wealthier African Americans pulled for the seeking of other Middle class and wealthier individuals of all races, to fill some of the vacancies in the neighborhoods. While it can be said that the black social infrastructures in these neighborhoods has been revived, it has been done at the expense of lower income blacks whom wealthier blacks do not want to live next to. It seems that poverty and wealth has become a divisive thing in the black community. There is a clear division between the haves and the have nots.
Black families have a long history of single parents or extended family stepping in to raise the next generation. There have been studies and theories on this occurrence that have related this family structure to the disadvantaged situation of black families. Others have said that the lack of a two-parent household is the actual cause of the disadvantage.
African American gender roles move away from what is considered the traditional American gender roles of a breadwinning male and a female managing the domestic side of life. This difference in part has to do with family structure and income levels. Due to black women being part of the labor force black men and women see each other as more of equals and take part equally in the division of household chores.
For my family being African American has shaped us in that we feel that we can never forget the color of our skin. The centuries of slavery followed by the century of oppression and segregation has greatly influenced my experiences as a young African American. I cannot live in this world without being aware daily of my race. I cannot act like segregation did not happen when my own mother can remember using a different water fountain than whites. I cannot forget that my grandfather was a sharecropper for a white family who barely paid him for the work he did. I cannot forget the lessons I was taught while young about my place in the world and how it relates to whiteness.
This view relates directly back to the stereotypes that other races may have about African Americans and the way it has shaped how we move in public spaces. I think that this kind of talk growing up has predisposed me in a way to distrust white people in general. The paradox of this is that my parents wanted us to have the opportunities that came from being around white people and made sure that we lived in a predominantly white neighborhood and attended schools that were predominantly white. I think that this kind of thinking has affected my future in that I too am living in a sort of paradox. My husband is white, my children are half white, but I find myself sometimes distrusting whether or not new whites I meet will be welcoming of me and my presence. Most of they time they are, but I still have that voice in the back of my head telling me they may not want me here.
Some important points I take away after researching for this paper is that the plight of African Americans from slavery to present day is a multi-faceted and well researched topic. The years spent in slavery have had an impact that is lasting to this present day. This impact colors a lot of the way that African Americans move through shared spaces. The African American family structure of a single parent or extended family raising children may have began in slavery when it was not a choice, but now it seems that this type of family has become commonplace and essentially the norm for African American families. The existence of intragroup discrimination based on skin color and poverty plagues the African American community in a way that keeps blacks from being able to reach across a divide and realize that we all fall under the umbrella of being black in America.
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