Postcolonial Theory and the African American Experience

By Lake, Tim | Journal of Pan African Studies, November 2007 | Go to article overview

Postcolonial Theory and the African American Experience


Lake, Tim, Journal of Pan African Studies


A century and a quarter ago deportation of the free Negroes might have been feasible; a half century later that was not a practical undertaking; today the deportation or exodus of the Negro American population is an utter impossibility ... Nor is there any place to which to take them. There are no more "vacant" places on earth.

James Weldon Johnson, Executive Sec., NAACP, 1934.

Retiring from the NAACP in 1930 to devote himself to writing, James Weldon Johnson, the composer of the Negro hymn, "Lift Every Voice And Sing," surveyed the international and domestic scenes and pronounced that "the world [was] in a state of semi-chaos." (1) For Johnson, the condition of "Negro Americans," during the opening decades of the 20th Century could not be separated from other geo-political realities. The impoverished condition of major European nations following WWI, the persistent communist and fascist threats, the race and labor riots in northern cities at home, the anti-colonial stirrings abroad, and the Great Depression provide the proper context for appraising the course of Black political action.

The solution to "the race problem" would not be found in the "exodus method" because there was nowhere to go. Johnson states, "[Negro Americans] and the white people may as well make up our minds definitely that we, the same as they, are in this country to stay" (Johnson 148-149). The Negro problem is the White man's burden, and the White man's burden is the Negro's problem. (2,3) The resolution of this conundrum of Black and White relations is tied to the destiny of America and her place among other nations. Black people in America, however, reserve the right to determine the course of their response to America's race problem. "White America," Johnson explains, "will simply have to sustain a situation that is of its own making, not ours." (4)

Johnson assigns the blame of America's racial problem to Whites and, by so doing, drains the counter-actions of Blacks of any moral valuation. That is, Johnson places the question of Black response to White racism outside of the moral realm. Even acts of physical violence on the part of oppressed Blacks cannot be judged immoral. For him, it is simply a matter of a practical response to an unpleasant situation. "The resort to force," states Johnson, "remains and will doubtless always remain the rightful recourse of oppressed peoples." He reminds us that America "was established upon that right." (5) For Johnson, Black response to White oppression must be judged for its "soundness" and not "on any moral or pacific grounds." Physical force is to be rejected because it "would be futile." Johnson writes, "We would be justified in taking up arms or anything we could lay hands on and fighting for the common rights we are entitled to and denied, if we had a chance to win. But I know and we all know there is not a chance." (6) The chance of a successful armed revolt by Black Americans is diminished by the sheer numerical imbalance: there are simply many more Whites than Blacks. (7)

The continuing debates concerning the character and content of resistance to acts of White supremacy ideology reveal the degree to which Black Americans perceive their condition as being that of a colonized people. (8) However, postcolonial theorists tend not to consider the experiences of African Americans when exploring matters of imperialism. This oversight has left postcolonial theorists without recourse to the African American experience as a resource for understanding and possibly resolving the knotty problem of positionality. Moreover, this omission allows for the false reading of the Western imperialist impulse as distinct from Black chattel slavery in America and Jim and Jane Crowism. (9)

In this paper I suggest that debates within the African American community over the direction of organized resistance to US racism reveal the degree to which African Americans understood their struggle to be connected with those on the Mother Continent and the African Diaspora. …

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