History and Black Consciousness: The Political Culture of Black America

Article excerpt

The central theme of black U.S. history has been the constant struggle to overcome the barriers of race, and the reality of unequal racial identities between black and white. This racial bifurcation has created parallel realities or racial universes, in which blacks and whites may interact closely with one another, but perceive social reality in dramatically different ways. These collective experiences of discrimination, and this memory of resistance and oppression, have given rise to several overlapping group strategies or critical perspectives within the African-American community, which have as their objective the ultimate empowerment of black people. In this sense, the contours of struggle for black people have given rise to a very specific consciousness, a sense of our community, its needs and its aspirations for itself. The major ideological debates which map the dimensions of the political mind of black United States have always been about the orientation and objectives of black political culture and consciousness. The great historical battles between Booker T. Washington, the architect of the "Tuskegee Compromise" of 1895, and W.E.B. Du Bois, the founder of the NAACP, or the conflicts between Du Bois and black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey, were fought largely over the manner in which the black community would define for itself the political and economic tools necessary for its empowerment and future development. Sometimes the battle lines in these struggles for black leadership and for shaping the consciousness of the African-American community were defined by class divisions. More generally, the lines of separation had less to do with class than with the internalized definitions of what "race" meant in the context of black political culture to African-Americans themselves.

Ironically, the historical meaning and reality of race was always fundamentally a product of class domination. Race, in the last analysis, is neither biologically nor genetically derived. It is a structure rooted in white supremacy, economic exploitation, and social privilege. It evolved in the process of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. Racism has power only as a set of institutional arrangements and social outcomes which perpetuate the exploitation of black labor, and the subordination of the black community's social and cultural life. But all of this is masked by the prism of race to those who experience the weight of its oppression. The oppressed perceive domination through the language and appearance of racial forms, although such policies and practices always served a larger class objective. As a result, the political culture of black United States is organized around racial themes, either an effort to overcome or escape the manifestations of institutional racism, or to build alternative institutions which empower black people within environments of whiteness. The approach of political empowerment is distinctly racial, rather than class oriented.

Most historians characterized the central divisions within black political culture as the 150-year struggle between "integration" and "separation." In 1925, this division was perceived as separating Du Bois and the NAACP from the Garveyites. In 1995, the division is used to distinguish pragmatic multicultural liberals such as Henry Louis Gates, Director of Harvard University's Afro-American studies department, from the architect of Afrocentrism, Temple University Professor Molefi Asante. However, there are serious limitations in this theoretical model. The simple fact is that the vast majority of African-American people usually would not define themselves as either Roy Wilkins-style integrationists or black separatists such as City University of New York Black Studies director Leonard Jeffries. Most blacks have perceived integration or black nationalism as alternative strategies which might serve the larger purpose of empowering their community and assisting in the deconstruction of institutions perpetuating racial inequality. …