Special Report

The Changing Definition of African-American

How the great influx of people from Africa and the Caribbean since 1965 is challenging what it means to be African-American

A long-running theme of U.S. black history (a panel from Jacob Lawrence's 1940-41 "Migration Series") may have to be revised. (© Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / ARS, NY / Museum of Modern Art / SCALA / Art Resource, NY)
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Some years ago, I was interviewed on public radio about the meaning of the Emancipation Proclamation. I addressed the familiar themes of the origins of that great document: the changing nature of the Civil War, the Union army’s growing dependence on black labor, the intensifying opposition to slavery in the North and the interplay of military necessity and abolitionist idealism. I recalled the longstanding debate over the role of Abraham Lincoln, the Radicals in Congress, abolitionists in the North, the Union army in the field and slaves on the plantations of the South in the destruction of slavery and in the authorship of legal freedom. And I stated my long-held position that slaves played a critical role in securing their own freedom. The controversy over what was sometimes called “self-emancipation” had generated great heat among historians, and it still had life.

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As I left the broadcast booth, a knot of black men and women—most of them technicians at the station—were talking about emancipation and its meaning. Once I was drawn into their discussion, I was surprised to learn that no one in the group was descended from anyone who had been freed by the proclamation or any other Civil War measure. Two had been born in Haiti, one in Jamaica, one in Britain, two in Ghana, and one, I believe, in Somalia. Others may have been the children of immigrants. While they seemed impressed—but not surprised—that slaves had played a part in breaking their own chains, and were interested in the events that had brought Lincoln to his decision during the summer of 1862, they insisted it had nothing to do with them. Simply put, it was not their history.

The conversation weighed upon me as I left the studio, and it has since. Much of the collective consciousness of black people in mainland North America—the belief of individual men and women that their own fate was linked to that of the group—has long been articulated through a common history, indeed a particular history: centuries of enslavement, freedom in the course of the Civil War, a great promise made amid the political turmoil of Reconstruction and a great promise broken, followed by disfranchisement, segregation and, finally, the long struggle for equality.

In commemorating this history—whether on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, during Black History Month or as current events warrant—African- Americans have rightly laid claim to a unique identity. Such celebrations—their memorialization of the past—are no different from those attached to the rituals of Vietnamese Tet celebrations or the Eastern Orthodox Nativity Fast, or the celebration of the birthdays of Christopher Columbus or Casimir Pulaski; social identity is ever rooted in history. But for African-Americans, their history has always been especially important because they were long denied a past.

And so the “not my history” disclaimer by people of African descent seemed particularly pointed—enough to compel me to look closely at how previous waves of black immigrants had addressed the connections between the history they carried from the Old World and the history they inherited in the New.

In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which became a critical marker in African-American history. Given opportunity, black Americans voted and stood for office in numbers not seen since the collapse of Reconstruction almost 100 years earlier. They soon occupied positions that had been the exclusive preserve of white men for more than half a century. By the beginning of the 21st century, black men and women had taken seats in the United States Senate and House of Representatives, as well as in state houses and municipalities throughout the nation. In 2009, a black man assumed the presidency of the United States. African-American life had been transformed.

Within months of passing the Voting Rights Act, Congress passed a new immigration law, replacing the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which had favored the admission of northern Europeans, with the Immigration and Nationality Act. The new law scrapped the rule of national origins and enshrined a first-come, first-served principle that made allowances for the recruitment of needed skills and the unification of divided families.

This was a radical change in policy, but few people expected it to have much practical effect. It “is not a revolutionary bill,” President Lyndon Johnson intoned. “It does not affect the lives of millions. It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives.”

But it has had a profound impact on American life. At the time it was passed, the foreign-born proportion of the American population had fallen to historic lows—about 5 percent—in large measure because of the old immigration restrictions. Not since the 1830s had the foreign-born made up such a tiny proportion of the American people. By 1965, the United States was no longer a nation of immigrants.

During the next four decades, forces set in motion by the Immigration and Nationality Act changed that. The number of immigrants entering the United States legally rose sharply, from some 3.3 million in the 1960s to 4.5 million in the 1970s. During the 1980s, a record 7.3 million people of foreign birth came legally to the United States to live. In the last third of the 20th century, America’s legally recognized foreign-born population tripled in size, equal to more than one American in ten. By the beginning of the 21st century, the United States was accepting foreign-born people at rates higher than at any time since the 1850s. The number of illegal immigrants added yet more to the total, as the United States was transformed into an immigrant society once again.


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