Black America: Still Searching for Identity

By Simmons, Judy | The New Crisis, July/August 1999 | Go to article overview

Black America: Still Searching for Identity


Simmons, Judy, The New Crisis


Merely a century and a half after Emancipation, Black America finds itself still shackled to ideas and images of itself that White America originates or filters. It is hard, perhaps even impossible, for African Americans to define themselves proactively rather than reactively

Who wants to declare "I'm Black and I'm proud" when the prevailing images of "Black" are ebonics-speaking, crotch-clutching young men jittery with illicit plans and the aura of impending death? And stocky, knock-kneed teenage girls blocking the supermarket aisle as they extend their small, swaddled babies toward each other to corroborate their claim to some kind of love? Don't you, to your secret shame, check to see if your passenger doors are locked as you drive by a group of Black youngsters?

Is it African Americans who implant that reflex in you, who give menace a Black face? Although Black America is surely identified -- stereotyped, I should say by images of these fallen angels living out the destinies of "homeboys" and "homegirls," it isn't African Americans who create the equation between "Black" and "social pathology" or just plain stupidity and incompetence. Nevertheless, that equation has historically driven more than a few African Americans to seek other-than-Black identities.

Forty years ago, in Rhode Island, a stubborn handful of brown-skinned folk amused the admittedly colored people by insisting that they were Indians, not Negroes, and held yearly powwows to prove it. (`Course, now the "Indians" are having the last laugh `cause the tribes are rolling in casino dough.)

In a current version of that denial, Tiger Woods's refusal to claim a Black American identity -- which some African Americans take as a slap in the face - is one more effort to sidestep the difficult issues that come with the sociopolitical territory called "Black."

Yet, claiming other races' contributions to one's bloodline doesn't change how people touched by the tar brush are viewed in the American context. Such labels as "biracial" and "multi-racial" (which could be applied to almost everyone alive on earth today) have not yet achieved any practical significance in the racially bifurcated life of this nation.

Every twenty years, every generation, the White collective recapitulates its ritual discovery that the slave girl can write a poem; that the Tuskegee scientist can revolutionize an agrarian economy with not only the peanut, but the sweet potato, too; that the colored/Negro/Black statesman (call him Bunche/McHenry/Young/Jackson) can exercise "personal" diplomacy - the only kind of diplomacy there is - to good effect around the world; that "ghetto" kids can play chess (oh, the arrogance of that repeated "discovery" I played it in Cedar Bluff, Alabama (Pop: 634) in 1950-something when I was 8, 9,10... it's only a game, not a standard for admission to the human race.)

The pity of it all is that African Americans themselves go along with the White collective's amazement that ghetto children play chess and Ronald McNair could qualify to ride the stars and William Alexander was filming newsreels, features, shorts and award-winning documentaries while Spike Lee was getting the hang of the potty chair. The marvelous amnesia that afflicts most Americans causes Black America always to be playing catch-up in its own mind. In as astounding a feat of brainwashing as that for which the Japanese were fabled during World War II, the White collective keeps the Black collective on the defensive, nervously poised always to prove itself worthy of meeting the "standards" of a group whose children are now mass-murdering their fellow students and teachers in schools all over the country.

What's wrong with this picture?

Thurgood Marshall and Leon Higginbotham knew. Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth knew. Malcolm X, of chickens-roosting, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan knew. …

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