by Juliette Ochieng | February 11th, 2014
In the first part, I expressed my ambivalence toward Black History Month; here, I mean to make the case for its necessity.
The Second Mind
A few months back, a person at another blog asked this question: how has America’s slave history affected present-day black Americans? The answer sits right in front of our eyes, and is so common that it almost never goes noticed: nearly all black Americans who are not recent African immigrants or the progeny of recent African immigrants have European surnames. [i] This phenomenon is a direct result of American slavery.
Upon Emancipation, some former slaves took the last names of their most recent former master; others retained the names of earlier masters; still others appropriated their own surnames, often that of American presidents up to 1865. (This is the reason there are so many black Americans with last names of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln and Johnson.)
But the point is that, black Americans were, under pain of punishment, severed from their pre-American histories and our names reflect this severance, the special circumstances of the author notwithstanding.
Black Americans—specifically, the descendants of American slavery–are the most American of Americans. [...] Unlike all other immigrants to America, our ancestors were forcibly cut off from all of the totems of their various West African tribes: names, languages, family structures, belief systems. These things have buoyed all other ethnic groups—including recent African immigrants—in their sojourn to this country and all of them had the choice to hold onto the elements of their cultures that fit into the American ideal and discard those which were incompatible. American slaves were granted no such luxury. Our ancestors were emptied of their identities and re-created in the image of what America had for them.
The Ottoman Empire provided a precedent for this practice and the stripping of the old identity coupled with the prohibition of other forms of indigenous African communication had a similar purpose: to cut off “un-coded” communication between slaves, and, thereby, prevent conspiracies. Moreover, as the Ottoman Empire aspired to create soldiers in its own image, America aspired to create a slave-class in its own image. And the long-term effect of this practice remains embedded in our very identities.
So what is the big deal about not knowing the history of one’s people? I am often shocked to hear Americans who celebrate the vision and foresight of the American Founders ask that question. We—all Americans—rightly hearken to the ideals on which this country is based in order to get some perspective on the present and as guidance on how to proceed in the future. And we examine this country’s success and failures for the same reasons. And further, many Americans celebrate being descended from Mayflower passengers or from specific American Indian tribes; or from Japan, or Ireland, or…
Black Americans, however, cannot point to an actual ethnic heritage which contributed to the mix that is America, for the reasons specified. And the ad hoc heritage which we are continuously building and fashioning is rooted in slavery–foundationally shaky and something about which many of us are unjustifiably ashamed. And, as a result of that misplaced shame, all too many of us take that shame, turn it outward, and use it as a cudgel in an attempt to shame white Americans. The result: white guilt.
It’s time for that mindset to end and there are two methods of ending it.
First, we need to stop viewing the slavery of our ancestors as a subject of shame. It is what it is and it is more than what it is…it removed us from the influences of idolatry and Islam. That’s how God works and he did something similar with the ancient Israelites.
Secondly, black history needs to shake off the “rah-rah, Team Black” aspect and focus on the truth–good and bad–as much as possible. Something which will be an aid: technological advances in DNA testing. This has served to lift the fog which used to surround American slave ancestry and I predict that those who avail themselves of it will become less focused on the victimology inherent in celebrating the depredations of slavery and more focused on the the good and bad of our American heritage and of our singular African tribal heritage–if desired.
Next part: what’s in it for white people?
To Be Continued…
Juliette Akinyi Ochieng blogs at baldilocks. Her first novel, Tale of the Tigers: Love is Not a Game, was published in 2009; the second edition in 2012. Her new novel, Arlen’s Harem, is due in early 2014. Help her fund it and help keep her blog alive!
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