Black American identity within the United States emerges from the interaction between structures of oppression — slavery, the slave trade and race hierarchy — and the needs and goals of those enmeshed within them. Slavery bound African captives together into a group; the desire to assert their personhood — to build community, to find respite, to resist — was cause to adopt a common identity. In turn, that common identity gave those individuals and their descendants a foundation from which to challenge the structures that bound them together in the first place. Race hierarchy and racism set in motion a process of group formation and social action, the aim of which was to transcend and overcome racial domination, and racial categorization itself.
Here, precision is important. Black people did not create themselves as “a race.” Race is an ideology, not a biological reality. It arose at a particular time in history, for particular reasons, in an effort to resolve the contradiction of a freedom-loving society that held large parts of its population in bondage. The claim? That the enslaved were a different, lesser form of humanity. It was enslavers who deemed their African captives a “race,” but it was those captives who made themselves into a people. Had things gone differently — if the American Revolution had been emancipatory, for example, with a full commitment to total equality for all people in the new nation — then Black Americans would have remained a people, but might no longer have been a “race.”
Race does not exist in the ether. It must be created and recreated, part of a hierarchical system of domination called racism, itself tied to the production and distribution of resources in our society. The violence and forced peonage of the post-Reconstruction era; the segregation of Jim Crow; the white flight, deindustrialization and the ghettoization of inner cities — all of these things created race. [Continue reading…]