Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African American Identity

Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African American Identity

Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African American Identity

Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African American Identity

Synopsis

This book explores the formation of the African-American identity through the theory of cultural trauma. The trauma in question is slavery, not as an institution or as personal experience, but as collective memory--a pervasive remembrance that grounded a people's sense of itself. Ron Eyerman offers insights into the intellectual and generational conflicts of identity-formation which have a truly universal significance, and provides a new and compelling account of the birth of African-American identity.

Excerpt

What has been lost is the continuity of the past … What you then are left with is still the past, but a fragmented past, which has lost its certainty of evaluation.

Hannah Arendt

It is memory that counts, that controls the rich mastery of the story, impels it along …

Jorge Semprun

In this book the formation of an African American identity will be explored through the theory of cultural trauma (Alexander et al. 2001). The “trauma” in question is slavery, not as institution or even experience, but as collective memory, a form of remembrance that grounded the identity-formation of a people. There is a difference between trauma as it affects individuals and as a cultural process. As cultural process, trauma is mediated through various forms of representation and linked to the reformation of collective identity and the reworking of collective memory. The notion of a unique African American identity emerged in the post-Civil War period, after slavery had been abolished. The trauma of forced servitude and of nearly complete subordination to the will and whims of another was thus not necessarily something directly experienced by many of the subjects of this study, but came to be central to their attempts to forge a collective identity out of its remembrance. In this sense, slavery was traumatic in retrospect, and formed a “primal scene” which could, potentially, unite all “African Americans” in the United States, whether or not they had themselves been slaves or had any knowledge of or feeling for Africa. Slavery formed the root of an emergent collective identity through an equally emergent collective memory, one that signified and distinguished a race, a people, or a community depending on the level of abstraction and point of view being put . . .

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