Who are we really?
“In the social jungle of human existence, there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity.”— Erik Erikson.
What is in a name? Shakespeare asked this question during Romeo’s soliloquy to Juliet. He asked this question because Romeo being part of the family Montague forbade him from associating with his love Juliet. She was of the family Capulet which the Montague’s feuded with for generations. Shakespeare did not reveal what started the families’ feud, but we do know their clash lead to several altercations that were at times deadly. The surname Romeo and Juliet bore carried the weight of a great contention their love could not overcome. Eventually, the discord that existed between Montague and Capulet led to the star-crossed lovers’ demise and the end of the Montague and Capulet dispute.
There is obviously a lot of weight that is held in a name. When we are born, the first thing the doctor declares is the baby’s sex of male or female. The parents name the child and that name follows them generally from cradle to grave. Also, the surname could determine who that child is to become. We’ve experienced this when we hear certain surnames spoken. When I hear Jackson, I think of a family of entertainers. When I hear Rockefeller, I think of a family who made their money in oil. When I hear the name Roosevelt or Kennedy, I think of families tied to American politics. With those examples, we can see how names can help shape the identity of an individual or even a group. We can also see how that identity can shape a person or a group for a lifetime.
Black America has wrestled with their identity for centuries. Since the first African Slaves arrived in the Americas, Black Americans have gone through a plethora of nomenclatures to attempt to define them as a people. Titles have gone from Colored, to Negro, to Black, and now African American. Are any of these designations accurate epithets for Black Americans? If they aren’t, then what is?
I conjecture that all of these inceptions to attempt identify Black people who descend from chattel slavery has caused an identity crisis. What is even more flagitious is the ones who are suffering from such a crisis I’d argue are not even aware of it. Black America does not want to deal with the trauma of what their identity in America really is. If they do, it would cause them to face the reality of their true position in this country which is a bottom cast.
This leads to a mental concern that Black America suffers on the macrosm called Identity Illness. In an article entitled The Impact of Illness Identity on Recovery from Severe Mental Illness by Philip T. Yanos, David Roe, and Paul H. Lysaker, they define Identity Illness as follows:
The set of roles and attitudes that a person has developed in relation to his or her understanding of having a mental illness.
Symptoms of Identity Illness or Identity crisis can include but not limited to:
- Questioning who you are
- Experiencing great personal conflict due to the questioning of who you are or your role in society.
- Questioning things such as your values, spirituality, beliefs, interests, or career path that have a major impact on how you see yourself.
- Searching for more meaning, reason, or passion in life
Physical symptoms of this ailment can include:
- Depressed mood or feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
- Loss of interest in things once enjoyed
- Changes in appetite or weight
- Issues with concentration, energy levels, motivation, and sleep
Slavery and Jim Crow have an impact of centuries old trauma that has left Black America disjointed. Our group has been seeking wholeness ever since.
The crux of Black America has attempted to redefine itself in a myriad of ways in order to heal from the injury that’s been thrust-ed upon them through Racism White Supremacy. The term African-American may seem to be a product of recent decades, exploding into common usage in the 1990s after a push from advocates like Jesse Jackson, and only enshrined in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2001. The phrase was first used in an anti-British sermon from 1782 credited to an anonymous “African American,” pushing the origins of the term back to the earliest days of independence. According to an article published Jan. 31, 1989 in the New York Times entitled ‘African-American’ Favored By Many of America’s Blacks , reads:
“This is deeper than just name recognition,” said Mr. Jackson who, along with others, called for the change at a news conference in late December (1989). ”Black tells you about skin color and what side of town you live on. African-American evokes discussion of the world.”
Discussion of the world I feel is a very fascinating choice of words. Black Americans that descend from chattel slavery are people who’s culture has been appropriated all over the world, but the people has not been accepted all over the world. Quite the opposite has occurred which caused this group to be often demonized. The tropes of savage, mammy, coon, Jezebel – to the modern welfare queen, lazy, thot, and thug plague Black Americans into a hole of mind torture passed on from generation to generation. When one even looks at media and sees how Black women are hyper-sexualized and Black men posthumously criminalized, it is easy to fall into an expanse that this group begins to believe, accuse, and carry out their negative stereotypes. Would it be fair to label these behaviors as indicators of Identity Illness?
People like Jackson sought the solution of calling Black Americans as “African American” to be the cure of this ailment. This notion was birth out of Jackson’s own journey to the continent and a movement called Pan-Africanism. According to an article on Encyclopedia Britannica online, Pan-Africanism is the idea that peoples of African descent have common interests and should be unified. Historically, Pan-Africanism has often taken the shape of a political or cultural movement. There are many varieties of Pan-Africanism. In its narrowest political manifestation, Pan-Africanists envision a unified African nation where all people of the African diaspora can live. (African diaspora refers to the long-term historical process by which people of African descent have been scattered from their ancestral homelands to other parts of the world.) In more-general terms, Pan-Africanism is the sentiment that people of African descent have a great deal in common, a fact that deserves notice and even celebration. “Pan” meaning “all” was an attempt to bring Black people under one umbrella of identity stating that no matter where we are in the world, we are of Africa.
Although the philosophy of Pan-Africanism is appreciable, it is not operational. The reason why is because the continent of Africa is not united under one banner of “Blackness”. Africa is comprised of 54 countries. Within those 54 countries contains a myriad of tribes. According to https://www.africasafari.co.uk/, there are roughly 3,000 different tribes in Africa that speak approximately 2,000 different languages. There are even situations of African countries having immigration problems from one country to another in the same continent. In a recent article from the New York Times South Africa Vows to Crack Down on Violence Against Nigerians published Oct. 3, 2019, the article states:
“Outbreaks of violence against Nigerians and citizens of other African nations have regularly erupted in South Africa in recent years, with some in the country accusing foreigners of taking their jobs or of committing crimes like peddling illegal drugs. – South Africa has been making efforts to repair ties after the government faced criticism for framing the violence against foreigners as everyday crime, and initially not speaking out against the xenophobia.”
African nations also deal with a separatist issue that plagues the continent to present day. In the Atlantic called The Dividing of a Continent: Africa’s Separatist Problem published in 2012 in , it states:
“African borders, in this thinking, are whatever Europeans happened to have marked down during the 19th and 20th centuries, which is a surprising way to do things given how little these outsider-drawn borders have to do with actual Africans. In much of the world, national borders have shifted over time to reflect ethnic, linguistic, and sometimes religious divisions. Spain’s borders generally enclose the Spanish-speakers of Europe; Slovenia and Croatia roughly encompass ethnic Slovenes and Croats. Thailand is exactly what its name suggests. Africa is different, its nations largely defined not by its peoples heritage but by the follies of European colonialism. But as the continent becomes more democratic and Africans assert desires for national self-determination, the African insistence on maintaining colonial-era borders is facing more popular challenges, further exposing the contradiction engineered into African society half a century ago.”
So what does this tell us? Is it proper for Black Americans to look at a fractured continent for identity? Although Black Americans are closer to the continent genetically, they are not culturally. If one looks to Africa with the first thought mentioned, as Biologist Richard Dawkins stated, we all are African. But since people who do not identify as “Black” also don’t identify as “African”, should we?
The truth of the matter is Black Americans are not “African” per se. Black Americans that have been in the United States for multiple generations are something quite different. They are an amalgamation of the enslaved that originally came from West and Central African countries and the en-slaver that is of European descent. In the article entitled The case against ‘African American’ to describe U.S. Black people | Opinion written by Milton W. Hinton posted on NJ.com – he writes:
“Most Black men and women born in the United States are now far removed from Africa, other than sharing some physical characteristics. Most Black Americans speak only English, while Africans often learn multiple languages and dialects in their youth. Most Black Americans — even if their lives depended on it — could not name 10 African languages, tribes or ethnic groups, or any of the continent’s musicians, playwrights, presidents or capital cities. Most of us will never visit Africa. I will go so far as to say that most Black Americans have never read a book by an African writer, which is one of the best ways to learn African history. Being African or African American means more than having similar physical characteristics”.
Black Americans are intermingled with the experiences of Slavery and Jim Crow, which deduces properly the denomination Freedmen or Freedmen Descendants. The term Freedmen was the bestowed on the newly emancipated slaves after the Civil War in 1865. It was also referenced to Black people who were not enslaved before the ending of Chattel Slavery. It was written in government documents and were federal institutions.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also wrote in his book Where do We Go from Here? From Chaos to Community about the Freedmen Descendants and how we are from slaves but also very American. We made America what it is but still bear the burden of past position.
“Who are we? We are the descendants of slaves. We are the offspring of noble men and women who were kidnaped from their native land and chained in ships like beasts. We
are the heirs of a great and exploited continent known as Africa. We are the heirs of a past of rope, fire and murder. I for one am not ashamed of this past. My shame is for those who became so inhuman that they could inflict this torture upon us.
But we are also Americans. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America. In spite of the psychological appeals of identification with Africa, the Negro must face the fact that America is now his home, a home that he helped to build through “blood, sweat and tears.” Since we are Americans the solution to our problem will not come through seeking to build a separate black nation within a nation, but by finding that creative minority of the concerned from the ofttimes apathetic majority, and together moving toward that colorless power that we all need for security and justice.”
I would correct Dr. King one particular point in this quoted passage. Those who were enslaved from the lands of West and Central Africa were largely sold into slavery, not kidnapped per se. Regardless of that resolve of a more appropriate version of history, King gave an up to mark summation of the Black experience that roots from Slavery in America. We are from those brought to this land from a continent long ago of people brought to America in chains and made to serve generations of other humans for centuries. We are also American and have influenced through blood, sweat, and tears largely to what America is. America would not be America without the ones who built it. Also I would say to him that this nation will never be “colorless”. Often the statement “I don’t see color” is a way to ignore the colossal issues that this nation faces because of the hierarchy of Racism White Supremacy.
Knowing what one’s identity is extremely important. John Cahill stated in the Quora article, Why is identity important? He says:
“Identity is important only because it is an opportunity to become, i.e., to go beyond whatever we and others think our identity is. Identity (the experience of self beyond a mere name) is an uncertain, impermanent shifting concept of a self. It is not one identity but many identities according to the opinions and values of those who may wish to identify an ‘individual’ or a supposed ‘self’.”
The experiences that Black Americans garnered is under the umbrella that we collectively share which are Slavery and Jim Crow. Slavery in America is a blot on history never redressed, but it was also the vehicle that created this nation and made it an economic world power. To think of the brutality of Slavery is painful. To reflect upon the ferocity of Jim Crow is appalling. To continue to suffer under the accrued disadvantages from these institutions is loathsome, however it is at the very foundation who we are. Once Black America embraces who we are as a people, we can start the rebuilding process to overcome our collective Identity Illness. This infirmity has plagued us in the environs of 14 generations. Going beyond “Black is Beautiful” and “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” will leap an entire people into the understanding of we are – the Descendants of enslaved or the Sons and Daughters of the Freedmen. As I quoted King earlier, I am not ashamed of this past. My shame is for those who became so inhuman that they could inflict this torture upon us.
- Cynthia McDonald – Medical Case Manager, Health and Political Advocate