Monday, September 15, 2008
Johnson, Violet. "'What Then is the African American?' African and Afro-Caribbean Identities in Black America." JOURNAL OF ETHNIC HISTORY 28.1 (2008)
In his examination of status ascriptions in American society, sociologist Everett Hughes illustrated the rigidity and power of blackness as a designation for all peoples of African descent in the United States: "membership in the Negro race, as defined in American mores and/or law, may be called a master status–determining trait. It tends to overpower, in most crucial situations, any other characteristics which might run counter to it." This 1945 study provides the pivot—the master status—around which the present discussion revolves. From the beginning of voluntary black immigration in the late nineteenth century to the present, this master status has been at the center of the history of black foreigners in the United States. Much of this history is shaped by a complex set of ambivalent processes marked by the immigrants' understanding of, acquiescence to, and outright challenge of the master status. The determination not to let this phenomenon overpower their nonracial distinctiveness has led immigrants of African descent to embark on, in Erving Goffman's term, "presentation of self," through which, individually and collectively, they have presented themselves as "the other" in black America. The diverse and complex outcomes of this presentation of the self have, in turn, contributed to the ethnicization of black America—in short, the creation of ethnic groups within a racialized American ethnicity, thus shattering the erroneous, even if enduring, notion of a monolithic black America. The "othering" of black immigrants and their children, self-consciously and by others, questions the master status in important ways that get to the core of who is African American. This interrogation has been crucial since the early twentieth century, when, for example, W. E. B. Du Bois and other American-born black leaders challenged the legitimacy of Jamaican Marcus Garvey as a black American activist. It gained significant momentum with the phenomenal increase of the foreign black population at the close of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries. The emergence of Barack Obama, a biracial American with a white mother and a Kenyan immigrant father, has provided the single most glaring illustration of the sharper attention to the black immigrant factor. During the 2004 U.S. Senate race in Illinois, black Republican Alan Keyes remarked about his Democratic opponent: "Barack Obama and I have the same race—that is, physical characteristics. We are not from the same heritage. My ancestors toiled in slavery in this country. My consciousness, who I am as a person, has been shaped by my struggle, deeply emotional and deeply painful, with the reality of that heritage." The "Obama heritage" debate gained new life with the senator's announcement of his candidacy for the 2008 presidential race. Immediately, some people began to ponder the implications of the first black American president tracing his blackness not to ancestors who experienced American slavery but directly to ancestors in Kenya, instructively, an African country that was not even a source of supply for the Atlantic slave trade, which laid the foundations for the native-born black community. From soul food restaurants to hairdressing and barber salons, Obama's authenticity as a "real African American" was put under scrutiny. The outcomes of developments around Obama's candidacy, which are bound to provide useful insights for future analysis, are unfolding: the endorsement by Oprah Winfrey, arguably the most influential black icon of contemporary America; Obama's surprisingly sound victory in predominantly white Iowa; and his postracial politics. . . . Read the rest here: http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/jaeh/28.1/johnson.html.