The legendary blues musician Rufus Thomas once gushed to a white man, “If you were black for one Saturday night on Beale Street, you would never want to be white again.” Like Thomas, many others have romanticized the image of a warm and welcoming black community. In addition, African American identities have often been flattened, homogenized, and reduced to a form of shorthand or a taken-for-granted concept—think of phrases such as “the black experience,” “the black vote,” “the black family,” and “the black community.” But as the panelists in session one, “Who is Black America,” made clear, there is no essentialized, immutable, or true black “identity” waiting to be found just below the surface. Rather, as the speakers argued, identities are conditional, contingent, and “always in process.”
Each presenter in the session offered new frameworks to understand the complexity and multiplicity of black identities. In doing so, they made several critical points: that we have been less attentive to identities that we consider shameful and that these identities have often been silenced in our family histories and in our classrooms; that we have yet to fully understand the complex historical connections between Native American and African American identities or the role that the knowledge of the law played in how African Americans understood themselves as Christians; and that each generation must grapple with the particular historical contexts that shape how identities are lived. Still, African American identities function as intangible spaces of imagination or sets of symbols to which people feel powerful attachments.
Ira Berlin opened the session by describing the diversity of black America, noting that Africans started out as Angolans, Congolese, or Mandingos, but as they endured the horrors of the Middle Passage, they bonded together and became “shipmates,” a term coined by anthropologists Sydney Mintz and Richard Price. On this side of the Atlantic, regional distinctions became increasingly less meaningful as “shipmates” were transformed into Africans in America. Some Africans were freed while others lived, worked, or were enslaved on plantations or farms.
Elsa Barkley Brown discussed a major theme in African American history that often hinders the work of historians who attempt to excavate the past: silence. She talked about showing Tree Shade (1998), a film by Lisa Collins, to undergraduates in her introductory African American history classes. The film tells the story of a gifted black girl whose efforts to create a family tree leave her ashamed and embarrassed as she only finds police records that tell her that her people were convicts. The young girl wrestles with truths about her ancestors that she would rather not know. Barkley Brown noted how the girl’s journey illuminates the multiplicity of silences in family histories and in official records and raises questions, including: What histories are we ashamed to have? What histories do we not want to hear about in our families or in our classrooms? Are there histories that we do not believe are worthy of learning? Who do we want black America to be?
Barkley Brown also discussed a 1920s clubwoman named Delilah Beasley, who wrote a column for the Oakland Tribune and worked tirelessly for the passage of an anti-lynching bill. Beasley wrote a desperate letter to W. E. B. Du Bois in 1928 asking for financial help—she had been homeless and financially destitute but urged Du Bois not to let anyone know about her dire circumstances. The incident illustrates the role of gender and whether women faced a greater sense of shame and embarrassment when they failed to live up to early 20th-century norms of respectability. Barkley Brown concluded her talk with the hope that her students would challenge her to fill in some of the silences, and that when she could not, they would be sure not to fill in those gaps with something more palatable. Instead, she hoped to let the silences stand and reveal the diversity of black America.
Tiya Miles discussed an understudied aspect of African American history—the presence of African American life in Native American spaces. Miles reminded the audience that the “New World” was hardly “new” in the 1500s, but rather was populated by hundreds of indigenous societies. Africans, who came across the Atlantic through the brutal slave trade, found themselves in the ancient cultures and communities of “Native North America.” The interactions between Africans and Native Americans were varied and diverse: In Virginia and South Carolina, enslaved Africans worked alongside Native Americans on tobacco, rice, and indigo plantations while in Puritan New England, Africans and Native Americans labored as indentured servants and sometimes formed couples that would reshape the composition of the Pequot and Narragansett tribes.
Miles suggested that we consider the concept of “indigeneity” along with concepts and categories of gender, class, sexuality, religion, ethnicity, color, and region, in order to develop a deeper understanding of the diversity of black life on native lands. Miles quoted an article written by Carter G. Woodson in 1920 that stated: “The longest unwritten chapter is relations between Negroes and Indians.” To address this silence, Miles suggested grappling with the concept of “indigeneity” as one step forward. It might help complete Woodson’s unwritten chapter and to reveal the meanings of America in the term “Black America.”
Dylan Penningroth noted the vast knowledge that African Americans gained about law and property from running churches beginning in the early 1900s. Bringing attention to another aspect of identity that has been relatively ignored, Penningroth focused on African Americans’ intersecting identities as Christians and as legal actors. Quoting Carter G. Woodson, Penningroth noted that in 1930, African Americans living in rural areas spent most of their money on church property. Explaining that the church is a religious corporation that holds property for the benefit of their members, Penningroth argued that church trustees were expected to watch over the civil rights of their congregations. The pillars of the black church were, as Penningroth noted, “believers, a pastor, a deed, and the trustees” and churches became “tiny schools of law” as they dealt with courts for numerous reasons, including borrowing money against their buildings. Thus a rich legal culture informed how churches were run, and how believers handled difficulties in the church and understood themselves as Christians.
By the 1950s, African Americans’ relationship to the law expanded as civil rights protesters targeted Jim Crow in the streets and in the courts, which was necessary because Jim Crow and segregation were legal barriers that had to be attacked through legal means. This fertile legal culture, Penningroth concluded, enabled African Americans to step into the modern freedom struggle with legal knowledge and with faith in the law’s possibilities and limits.
Deborah Gray White observed two turning points in the transformations of black identities: the New Negro movement of the early 20th century and postmodernity of the late 20th century. These two periods, White argued, “. . . demonstrate the evolutionary nature of black identity in the 20th century and some of the generational and gender issues involved.”
First, the New Negro movement reflected the hope that African Americans held of becoming modern by migrating to urban centers, becoming part of an industrialized economy, engaging with financial institutions, defending the right to their own bodies and personhood, and distancing themselves from sharecropping and peonage. New Negroes were more interested in uplift through civil rights protest than the strategies of self-help that their parents had attempted. They formed “parallel institutions” (a term coined by Darlene Clark Hine for sororities, fraternities, colleges, and other predominantly black institutions) as a measure of self-defense against the pressures and the violence of the Jim Crow regime. By living behind the veil as W. E. B. Du Bois has written, blacks (including immigrants from the Caribbean whose numbers increased exponentially, especially in cities like New York) developed their own styles and aesthetics. Second, by the end of the century, young black Americans found themselves dealing with other aspects of postmodernity: The election of the first black president, a growing nonwhite population, and the advent of the global economy. These changes provided African Americans with new and alternative ways to identify. A sense of “linked fate” declined and African Americans (and especially millennials) began to see blackness as one of a bevy of variables—rather than the only one—that defined them.
During the Q & A, White argued that there are and always have been “40 million ways to be black” and concluded that in order to truly understand the new shape of African American identities, we must “read against the biased grain.” If we accept White’s challenge, we may overcome the silences and begin to understand the multiple identities of African Americans. This will ultimately get us closer to a more nuanced and more complex answer to the question, “Who Is Black America?”
Allyson Hobbs is assistant professor of history at Stanford University. Hobbs’s first book, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life (2014), examines the phenomenon of racial passing in the United States from the late 18th century to the present.