HARLEM HAS CONTINUED TO METAMORPHOSE OVER THE PAST TWO hundred years. One element that has remained consistent in this series of communities, and African American black life in general, is the impact of racism. Dating back to slavery, racial inequality has been a persistent and determinant part of the black American experience from its origins. Enslavement constitutes the bulk of the experience of African people in the United States because it lasted close to 250 years. This is almost double the approximately 143 years that have passed since passage of the 13th Amendment.
Due to the length and general significance of this era, the antebellum period is a good place to begin a discussion of class formation among African Americans. Slavery left no aspect of black life untouched and subsequently spawned structural and ideological barriers to black achievement that remain with us today.
Human agency is central to this legacy of oppression. Resistance has been a perpetual accompaniment to racial inequality and this has shaped African American life and culture (Gilroy 1987, Kelley 1995). Historians have documented the ingenuity, dynamism, hope, and opportunism of women and men during enslavement. A number of monographs show that blacks did not submit passively to the dehumanizing and rigorous assaults of enslavement (Franklin 1946; Bennett 1962; Aptheker 1970; Davis 1981). African American culture continues to be forged through a dialectic of oppression and resistance and racial subordination continues to shape identity formation, material conditions, and notions of racial ability and national belonging in the contemporary period.