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)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 1)

Black America was similarly transformed. Before 1965, black people of foreign birth residing in the United States were nearly invisible. According to the 1960 census, their percentage of the population was to the right of the decimal point. But after 1965, men and women of African descent entered the United States in ever-increasing numbers. During the 1990s, some 900,000 black immigrants came from the Caribbean; another 400,000 came from Africa; still others came from Europe and the Pacific rim. By the beginning of the 21st century, more people had come from Africa to live in the United States than during the centuries of the slave trade. At that point, nearly one in ten black Americans was an immigrant or the child of an immigrant.

African-American society has begun to reflect this change. In New York, the Roman Catholic diocese has added masses in Ashanti and Fante, while black men and women from various Carib­bean islands march in the West Indian-American Carnival and the Dominican Day Parade. In Chicago, Cameroonians celebrate their nation’s independence day, while the DuSable Museum of African American History hosts a Nigerian Festival. Black immigrants have joined groups such as the Egbe Omo Yoruba (National Association of Yoruba Descendants in North America), the Association des Sénégalais d’Amérique and the Fédération des Associations Régionales Haïtiennes à l’Étranger rather than the NAACP or the Urban League.

To many of these men and women, Juneteenth celebrations—the commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States—are at best an afterthought. The new arrivals frequently echo the words of the men and women I met outside the radio broadcast booth. Some have struggled over the very appellation “African-American,” either shunning it—declaring themselves, for instance, Jamaican-Amer­icans or Nigerian-Americans—or denying native black Americans’ claim to it on the ground that most of them had never been to Africa. At the same time, some old-time black residents refuse to recognize the new arrivals as true African-Americans. “I am African and I am an American citizen; am I not African-American?” a dark-skinned, Ethiopian-born Abdulaziz Kamus asked at a community meeting in suburban Maryland in 2004. To his surprise and dismay, the overwhelmingly black audience responded no. Such discord over the meaning of the African-American experience and who is (and isn’t) part of it is not new, but of late has grown more intense.

After devoting more than 30 years of my career as a historian to the study of the American past, I’ve concluded that African-American history might best be viewed as a series of great migrations, during which immigrants—at first forced and then free—transformed an alien place into a home, becoming deeply rooted in a land that once was foreign, even despised. After each migration, the newcomers created new understandings of the African-American experience and new definitions of blackness. Given the numbers of black immigrants arriving after 1965, and the diversity of their origins, it should be no surprise that the overarching narrative of African-American history has become a subject of contention.

That narrative, encapsulated in the title of John Hope Franklin’s classic text From Slavery to Freedom, has been reflected in everything from spirituals to sermons, from folk tales to TV docudramas. Like Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery, Alex Haley’s Roots and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, it retells the nightmare of enslavement, the exhilaration of emancipation, the betrayal of Reconstruction, the ordeal of disfranchisement and segregation, and the pervasive, omnipresent discrimination, along with the heroic and ultimately triumphant struggle against second-class citizenship.

This narrative retains incalculable value. It reminds men and women that a shared past binds them together, even when distance and different circumstances and experiences create diverse interests. It also integrates black people’s history into an American story of seemingly inevitable progress. While recognizing the realities of black poverty and inequality, it nevertheless depicts the trajectory of black life moving along what Dr. King referred to as the “arc of justice,” in which exploitation and coercion yield, reluctantly but inexorably, to fairness and freedom.

Yet this story has had less direct relevance for black immigrants. Although new arrivals quickly discover the racial inequalities of American life for themselves, many—fleeing from poverty of the sort rarely experienced even by the poorest of contemporary black Americans and tyranny unknown to even the most oppressed—are quick to embrace a society that offers them opportunities unknown in their homelands. While they have subjected themselves to exploitation by working long hours for little compensation and underconsuming to save for the future (just as their native-born counterparts have done), they often ignore the connection between their own travails and those of previous generations of African-Americans. But those travails are connected, for the migrations that are currently transforming African-American life are directly connected to those that have transformed black life in the past. The trans-Atlantic passage to the tobacco and rice plantations of the coastal South, the 19th-century movement to the cotton and sugar plantations of the Southern interior, the 20th-century shift to the industrializing cities of the North and the waves of arrivals after 1965 all reflect the changing demands of global capitalism and its appetite for labor.

New circumstances, it seems, require a new narrative. But it need not—and should not—deny or contradict the slavery-to-freedom story. As the more recent arrivals add their own chapters, the themes derived from these various migrations, both forced and free, grow in significance. They allow us to see the African-American experience afresh and sharpen our awareness that African-American history is, in the end, of one piece.

Ira Berlin teaches at the University of Maryland. His 1999 study of slavery in North America, Many Thousands Gone, received the Bancroft Prize.

Adapted from The Making of African America, by Ira Berlin. © 2010. With the permission of the publisher, Viking, a member of the Penguin Group (USA) Inc.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus