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Over the past 150 years or so, African Americans have undergone five or six identity transformations. At one point, “colored” was considered a perfectly respectable term. Over time, colored people became Negros, Negros became black, and slowly blacks are becoming African-Americans.
By changing our names, we hope perhaps to alter the meaning of our identity—the word “colored” smacks too strongly of oppressive racist laws and Jim Crow. “African-American” supposedly places us on equal footing with the other ethnic groups that comprise the American melting pot. Yet even this last label carries with it the whiff of otherness, if only because our default image of the unhyphenated American continues to be white.
Having (supposedly) abandoned the white/non-white duality that defined most of its history, America has embraced a new equally dangerous dichotomy between the “ethnic” and the “universal.”
Blackness as we know it today was initially invented as a way to maintain order in America’s slave society. Before they were kidnapped, West Africans knew themselves as whole people, marked by their particular religious customs, familial histories, and places in society. Only in America did they become “coloreds” defined by their reduced personhood in comparison to whites. As laws designed to maintain the purity of the races failed to prevent slave owners from sexually assaulting their female property, blackness became less a category than an attribute—a marker. Instead of producing mixed offspring, masters and slaves produced a variety of marked peoples from “mulattos” to “octoroons.” Under the one-drop rule, blackness was not a particular racial ancestry, but a stain that persisted up to the fourth generation. To be black had no particular cultural or ethnic meaning except as a basis and justification for social exclusion.
As it has become increasingly difficult to justify the explicit disenfranchisement of black people, blackness has been redefined as a cultural and moral attribute. The negativity of black identity has been maintained through twin processes of appropriation and denigration. “Good” black inventions like jazz, soul food, vogueing and the cult of the booty tend to lose their black specificity and become absorbed into broader American culture. Meanwhile generalized societal ills like drug abuse are transformed into “the black drug problem,” regardless of statistics indicating that blacks and whites use drugs at similar rate.
Research from Harvard’s Project Implicit suggests that these associations are common to most Americans and take place automatically and unconsciously. Americans of all colors usually find it easier to associate negative terms with blackness than to associate negative terms with whiteness. With this schema firmly planted in our minds, it is unsurprising that anti-black racism is so resilient.
Having established a racial category for what is wrong in America, we are quickly able to adapt to new social norms. As homophobia has declined for all ethnic groups, and support for gay rights has become the new orthodoxy, “black homophobia” has emerged as a national concern. America offers the ambitious black student two options— he can either serve as “a credit to his race"—or he can transcend race entirely to become the kind of person who is “never thought of as black.”
I find neither option particularly satisfying. Instead of accepting or forfeiting the limited “black” inheritance that America offers me, I would like to stake my claim to the country as a whole. I would like to try unhyphenated “American” on for size, not because I would like to join the cult of those who don’t see race, but because I want to take back my full inheritance—hundreds of years of stolen labor, wealth, and ideas that have magically become “colorless.” The America that we think of as “universal” is black to its very foundations, and its time that we recognize it as such.
Taonga R. Leslie ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is a sociology concentrator in Winthrop House.
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