Blog Post

“Who Is Black America?”: Historians Wrestle with the Complexities of Defining Blackness

Jonathan Holloway

“God wills us free, man wills us slave. I will as God wills, God’s will be done.” I begin my reflection of the first session of the Future of the African American Past with the opening lines on a headstone in a Concord, Massachusetts, cemetery. This epitaph, written by a British loyalist on the eve of the American Revolution, is in regards to John Jack, a black man born free in Africa but enslaved in Colonial New England. John Jack died in 1773 while the white, male property-owners (the citizens of Concord) were complaining to King George that they were being treated like slaves. Jack had purchased his freedom before he died, but could not convince the citizens of Concord to honor his full humanity. The searing truth is that the free citizens would not recognize the slaves and the formerly enslaved in their midst. Jack did not live long enough to witness the literal battles for freedom that marked the birthing of these United States, but he could see with profound and painful clarity that the society envisioned by white, male property-owners did not have the space to imagine him as their peer. This is the American paradox: a country so determined to celebrate (and even export) its faith in liberty and freedom has, time and again, been unable or unwilling to understand that this very freedom is fundamentally intertwined with slavery.

The session, “Who is Black America,” wrestled in different ways with how to work through the paradoxes of what the United States is, the role of blackness in fashioning this country and its meaning, and the shifting role of blackness itself. Ira Berlin (Univ. of Maryland) served as the chair of the session and contextualized the talks that were to follow. Berlin declared that the session was about the diversity within the black community but immediately problematized that simple charge of the session. What, for example, is the “black community?” People of African descent, after all, came to these shores from a broad range of social, cultural, and geographic experiences. Through the brutality of slavery and the cultural legacies of that system, a notion of a singular blackness emerged. But what does it mean for a community when it is formed out of a system of exploitation and its legacy? Because blacks have had a “common enemy and a shared experience,” as Berlin noted, it often makes it difficult to see the diversity of the community on its own terms.

Session participants built on Berlin’s observation and complication in a variety of ways. Tiya Miles (Univ. of Michigan, Ann Arbor) spoke about the varied experiences that blacks had with Native American/indigenous people, making clear that the black-white dyad that is burned into our national consciousness is too simple. Dylan Peningroth (Univ. of California, Berkeley) fought against the notion that blacks were mere vessels who were always the victim of laws arrayed against them, delineating many ways that blacks used the legal system to fight for their own freedoms a full century before the start of the modern civil rights movement. Deborah Gray-White (Rutgers Univ.) carried the complications of thinking about the formation of a black identity deep into the 20th century as she explored the evolving self-conceptions of blackness from the New Negro Movement to our current, allegedly post-racial age.

What tied all of the papers together, though, was Elsa Barkley-Brown’s (Univ. of Maryland) comments about the silences in the American archive. There are too many instances, she pointed out, when historians have failed to tell the black history of the United States because they could not find evidence. But when it comes to black America, what, really, is the archive? Where does one find evidence? We need to think in critical and expansive ways about where to look for stories of the black past that tell us more about who we are in our present moment. The census records, the government documents, the business and military files will tell us but so much. What we need to do in addition to finding this history in familiar places is to look to places that are unfamiliar to the “official archive.” When we look, for example, in the family bible and read the stray pieces of paper that have been inserted between pages, we learn a bit more about who we are. When we push our parents and grandparents to share stories with us—particularly those that they might have felt were shameful in a previous era—we learn a bit more about who we are. When we insist that our teachers move beyond the tired textbook versions of the black past and teach us more than the familiar histories of the heroes and heroines of “great moments” then we learn a bit more about who we are. When we realize that as independent citizens we have a story to tell, then we make it that much easier for others to learn a bit more about who we are.

As we do that work, it is going to be critical for us to open up our understanding of how the black community itself is constituted. I concur with the panelists, all of whom said we must pay attention to the changing face of black America as more people from throughout the diaspora travel to this country. We must listen to the increasing complexities within our own black world as more people openly align with a position that turns its nose at the respectability politics of a different era, or as more people openly celebrate sexualities that would have stayed in a previous era’s closet. We must, as Tiya Miles said, try to create a new language to capture the complexity of who we are in this moment and what we have been all along.

I believe—no, I know—that the National Museum of African American Culture is committed to telling these complex stories. Through the leadership of Lonnie Bunch and the hard work of its curators and contributing scholars, the museum is going to venture into the messy places in our past, it is going to embrace the silences in the archives and even in the family histories. It is going to tell a much richer and nuanced story about who is black America and, in so doing, will tell a much richer and nuanced story of the American paradox to which John Jack’s epitaph spoke over 240 years ago.


Jonathan Holloway is Dean of Yale College and Edmund S. Morgan Professor of African American Studies, History, and American Studies.


SESSION 1: Who Is Black America?