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Redefining Black?

Essay collection explores the meanings of "African" and "American" in "African-American"

By Makkada B. Selah | Posted 5/13/2009

Best African American Essays: 2009

Gerald Early and Debra Dickerson, editors


African-Americans have been called many things: slaves, colored, black. There's always been a contingent of them eager to reclaim their Africanness, though, because they never felt completely accepted in America, so they've been trying to get back to their way of being before they were brought here unwillingly. Alex Haley's Roots is indicative of this urge. And Jesse Jackson's championing the term "African-American" in the 1980s, which replaced the term "black" in public discourse, emphasized that like other Americans, "black" Americans have a homeland, too--Africa.

Yet a few crucial essays Best African American Essays: 2009 (Bantam), edited by Gerald Early and Debra Dickerson--note: most of its articles were published in various trade and academic publications from 2006-'08, during Barack Obama's journey toward the White House, and were written by big names such as Malcolm Gladwell, Jamaica Kincaid, Walter Mosley, Thomas Sowell, and Obama himself--reveal an interesting thing: Native-born Africans do not consider black Americans to be Africans. They see them as "Americans." Little did African-Americans know that Africans kinda disowned them when they put them on the boat. It's very rarely confirmed in public, but in the minds of white Americans, and in the minds of many native Africans, African-Americans have a stigma that can never be assuaged.

Kwame Appiah puts it this way in "A Slow Emancipation": "To understand the nature of that legacy of slavery [in America], it helps to look at the experience of slavery on the African side of the middle passage." Appiah, the son of a chief of the Ashanti in Africa and a white English mother, recounts the story of an "aunt" who lived with the family. She was a free woman, but because her ancestors were slaves of his family, in the eyes of the community, and in her own eyes, "she was of lower status than the rest of us." In Africa, once you are a slave, the blot of slavery stays with your descendants for generations. Slave labor was regularly employed in the building of African empires, and Appiah acknowledges that the transatlantic slave trade made the Ashanti empire of Ghana unbelievably rich. He writes that following the ban of the African slave trade by British Parliament, the Ashanti had to "rethink the whole basis of their economy."

Jerald Walker's fascinating essay "We Are Americans" will disillusion Pan-Africanists even more. A village chief accosts Walker, who is visiting Zimbabwe with his biracial wife, with the following question: "Tell me, why do you people call yourselves African-Americans?" Walker recalls the irony of his sister throwing him an African feast before he left, her dressed in African garb with "imposing" African masks on the wall, and him crying, both of them so excited that one of them was finally going "home." Once there, he realizes that the "locks on the homeland's doors had been changed."

"You are not Africans" the village chief tells him. "Do you know that you insult Africans when you say that you are one of us?"

John McWhorter conversely laments in "Americans Without Americanness" that amid musings on what "black" identity should be, Africa plays such a large part while being "American" doesn't. He doesn't define what "Americanness" means, though. He doesn't acknowledge that traditionally it's been a euphemism for white ethnocentrism, yet McWhorter underscores what the African chief said: "America is the only homeland black Americans have known for centuries or ever will." That may be true but, historically, in their American homeland, "black" Americans have been second-class citizens.

This volume's final section--titled "Activism/Political Thought," and in which four of the eight essays, including the final essay, is devoted to the meaning of Obama--argues that having a "black" man elected president will make our country well on its way to being "post-racial." Essays by Michael Eric Dyson, Andrew Sullivan, and Stanley Crouch all sing Obama's praises, though Sullivan notes in his essay "Goodbye to All That: Why Obama Matters" that "there are times, I confess, when Obama's account of understanding his own racial experience seemed more like that of a gay teen discovering that he lives in two worlds simultaneously than that of a young African-American confronting racism for the first time." Sullivan goes on to say about Obama's memoir Dreams From My Father that "Obama's experience feels more like an immigrant story than a black memoir."

The centerpiece essay in this final section is an Obama speech originally published by Soujourners Magazine in 2006 called, "One Nation . . . Under God?" It's from an Obama address to the Pentecost Conference in June 2006, shilling for Christian votes. He speaks of his Christian-conversion moment in the black church and contends, "I believe. . . in the power of the African-American religious tradition to spur social change." This was before he had to denounce the same church he spoke of when its pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his "liberation theology," was a little too confrontational for the tastes of some of his potential white voters.

The problem is, according to U.S. government classifications, Obama isn't an "American black." He's the American-born son of an African immigrant and an American white woman--he's something else. Note that Obama's birth certificate says that his father was "African," not "black." The use of the word "African" to refer to American blacks ceased around the mid-19th century, so heralding Obama as the first "black" president is misleading.

The definition of "black" isn't something "black people" have the authority to change--it was imposed upon them like the slave holder's brand. "Black" in America refers to descendants of African captives of the transatlantic slave trade, be it one drop of "black" blood. "Black" in America refers to one descended from a captive of Anglos, not one who immigrated here of free will. Even Latino slave descendents aren't considered "black"--see the "black/not Hispanic" check in most American government racial questionnaires and ask Sammy Sosa.

This fact may sound like a trivial or petty distinction, but it's quite significant when you consider the stigma of American slavery in the minds of Americans and how many of them perceived Obama to be "different," more exotic, and more palpable as a person to vote for precisely because he has an American white mother and he's not descended from American captives. If he had been the descendant of an American slave, the outcome may have been different.

Unfortunately, American slave descendants can't make Obama "black" because they like him and he looks like them, or even because he's married to an "American black" woman. Essays co-editor Debra Dickerson proclaimed throughout Obama's campaign that he isn't "black"--during the time these very essays were being written, in every mainstream publication and news program she could, including The Colbert Report--though she's conspicuously silent on that point in her introduction to the book.

American blacks, unlike many continental Africans, stand ready and willing to adopt any and everyone as "black"--even, apparently, Bill Clinton. In an effort to edify Obama's "blackness," Stanley Crouch, in his essay "The High Ground," calls Obama a "bluesman from Chicago." Crouch claims that Obama has purified the American people of their pre-occupation with race. "Obama has created a movement no one knew was possible and that our pundits still fail to understand because they reduce it to something neither he nor his followers are interested in: race."

Obama, Crouch says, isn't interested in race. Forgotten is the April 2008 incident at a campaign stop at Carnegie Mellon University, in which one of Michelle Obama's event coordinators started reseating people sitting behind Mrs. Obama for her televised speech, and says to another event coordinator, "Get me more white people; we need more white people." To an Asian girl sitting behind Mrs. Obama, the coordinator says, "We're moving you, sorry. It's going to look so pretty, though."

The Obama campaign worked so hard to make it appear that it wasn't interested in race, but race, ethnocentrism, and catering to white Americans was at the very foundation of Obama's campaign--it's also at the foundation of this volume of Best African American Essays. These essays are for show. In the intro, Gerald Early alludes to an earlier black jeremiad tradition that included David Walker and Frederick Douglass, but this volume isn't in that tradition--save perhaps one essay by Nigerian immigrant and novelist Uzodinma Iweala, "Stop Trying to Save Africa," that doesn't address African-Americans, but Africans.

The triumph of this collection lies in these talented writers' ability to revise what it means to be "black," what it means to be "African," and what it means to be "American." Its weakness is the same old DuBoisian double consciousness. Even Jerald Walker's essay--which could have been be the best in the book, though Emily Raboteau's investigation into white supremacy in Israel "Searching for Zion" is quite illuminating as well--after skillfully raising penetrating questions about what it means to be a black American falls flat and concludes with the cliché: "race [is] insignificant; it shouldn't and ultimately [doesn't] matter."

Gee. Why don't you tell American black people something they don't already know? There's always the sense when reading these writers that they are being gazed at--and they want very much for the powerful white literary establishment looking at them to think what they have to say looks pretty.

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