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Blackness is first a descriptive category that refers to people of African descent and the degree to which they look like the African stereotype before and after their biological mixture with other groups in the Atlantic world. The mixtures referred to here began with Africa’s contact with Europe and continued with the slave trade, the creation of African communities in the New World, and the rise of colonialism. The varying shades of blackness created competing and contradictory definitions of whiteness and blackness. The phenotypical attributes of individuals— hair texture, dark skin, blunt features, and body type— became the physical markers of blackness, but as these markers were compromised by racial mixture, it became necessary to certify whiteness.
Racial mixture required new terms to ensure the “purity” of whiteness. For example, in Europe, Latin America, and Africa, terms such as preto (black), mulatto (half-white, or brown), mestizo (Indian and white), and many more were commonplace by the eighteenth century. Another means to certify whiteness was to define blackness legally. In the United States, for example, the “one drop rule” rendered anyone with even one known drop of black blood as legally, fractionally black. Racial mixture was codified in law. Mulatto (one-half black), quadroon (one-quarter black), and octoroon (one-eighth black) were social and legal categories to determine who was not fully white. As more and more individuals had features that suggested white ancestry—straight or wavy hair, thin features, or brown to very light skin—blackness based on physical type alone was unstable. In the United States blackness had to include mixtures. In Latin America and elsewhere, mixture was often a means of distancing oneself from blackness but rarely allowing one to be white. In the United States, the only option was to pretend to be white or present oneself as white, provided the physical markers and cultural bearing allowed the deception. This practice was known as “passing” and hundreds, perhaps thousands, managed to pull off the deception.
In South Africa, in contrast, “black” referred to all those of African appearance, and “colored” signaled those of mixed background, with whites as the pure, uncontaminated group. East Indians in South Africa were also a separate group, but in England, East Indians embraced their own version of blackness. Their physical darkness had meaning in this context. Blackness and whiteness are therefore linked in these societies to the extent that who is black can only be ascertained by determining who is white. But blackness also exists in societies with no significant white population. In Guyana and Trinidad, for instance, blackness exists in a population that is dominated by other dark-skinned people: East Indians. Physical features other than color become salient in these societies, and culture takes on profound meaning.
Blackness, secondly, is a conscious mental attitude expressed in political practice, social organizations, and commitment to the group. It is embraced by those who by law or custom experience racial discrimination and identify themselves as a group in the struggle toward the realization of their aspirations. Black consciousness is also concerned with the consequences of defining oneself as black. It forms the basis for a transnational politics and subjectivity that creates relationships between Africans in Africa and the African diaspora.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries black consciousness was expressed in slave revolts and runaway slave communities known as “maroons.” Free blacks organized against slavery as well as struggled for their rightful place in society. After slavery ended, black consciousness took many forms that were grounded in an affirmative black identity. In the postbellum U.S. South, black towns emerged to form self-sustaining communities that remained relatively free from the harsher elements of Jim Crow society. But in this segregated world, the act of choosing separation and becoming economically independent invited the very violence that blacks sought to avoid. By the 1920s not only was lynching commonplace, but inhabitants in all-black towns and the “black backside” of white towns were targets of white terror. The allblack section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was leveled in 1921 by angry whites who destroyed black businesses, churches, banks, and all signs of black independence. In the same decade, the black inhabitants in Rosewood and Ocoee, Florida, were massacred, their homes and businesses destroyed. Black consciousness that resulted in economic and political parity was not to be tolerated. This racial violence and the discrimination that it supported were key elements in forging a black consciousness and a sense of group affiliation and pride that led to an activism characterized by black self-help and political formations that spoke to needs of the black underclass. Organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Nation of Islam, the United Negro Improvement Association, the African Blood Brotherhood, the black women’s club movement, black unions, and many more fought for black rights and achievement in the early part of the century.
This assertive black mentality found expression in the modern black freedom struggle and the black power movements of the 1960s and 1970s. In the United States, with boycotts of segregated institutions, freedom marches, and political activism, blacks achieved the removal of the most egregious forms of segregation, if not complete economic and social parity. These movements were possible in large measure because of the deep sense of historical and cultural separateness blacks feel as a people. Pride and a commitment to the freedom struggle underpinned a race-based black nationalism that had been evident in the nineteenth century and flowered dramatically in the twentieth century.
Similarly, in Brazil after slavery ended in 1888, former slaves and free blacks struggled to challenge the racial discrimination that relegated them to second-class citizens. Black Brazilians (pretos) found themselves locked at the bottom of a hierarchy defined by gradations of color with whites at the top. Morenos, mulattos, and mestizos (mixed race), in contrast, fared better socially and economically. As in all of Latin America, whites in Brazil held political and economic power while colored folk jockeyed for positions relative to whites, often using their distance from blackness as a measure of social and political success. Yet, by the twentieth century, blacks in Brazil had formed organizations that specifically addressed racial discrimination and their position as blacks. In the 1930s they formed the Frente Negra Brasileira (Black Brazilian Front), an organization concerned with racial uplift, integration, and Afro-Brazilian mobility. In the 1970s and 1980s a flurry of organizations appeared in Brazil focusing on blackness and black issues, the most important being the Movimento Negro Unificado (United Black Movement).
In Spanish-speaking America, too, black groups pushed for inclusion through activism and protest. In Cuba, for example, during slavery the cabildos da nacions (council of nations) retained ethnic identities and created new ones based on memories from an African past. The survival of African belief systems and cultural forms facilitated an African ethnic consciousness well into the twentieth century. But alongside these African cultural forms, a more generalized black consciousness also emerged that unified free and slave populations. From these formations, leaders with a distinct black consciousness emerged in the late nineteenth century to challenge slavery and efforts to subject black people to white racist domination. One organization that grew from these slave nations and the revolutions in 1868 and 1898 against slavery and Spain was the Partido Independiente de Color, the first black political party in the Americas (1908). Its purpose was to work for inclusion within the Cuban state and a national identity that embraced black people as Cuban. Both Africans (i.e., dark-skinned persons) and mulattos were members of this organization, and they affirmed a black political identity as Afro-Cuban. The efforts to create a Cuban identity that was both black and Cuban resulted in a violent backlash in the race war of 1912, when members of the Partido were massacred by white Cubans. In the aftermath of this massacre, blacks did not abandon their black consciousness, but were forced to articulate that consciousness culturally and intellectually rather than in political organization.
Black voices were more audible in the years after the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Although the economic and social situations improved, racism has not been eliminated and, in some respects, has increased particularly in moments of extreme economic distress. The strength of Afro-Cuban culture and the long tradition of black consciousness in Cuba has created a black Cuban identity that is both black and Cuban.
In other parts of Spanish America, attempts to forge a black identity have met considerable resistance, historically. In Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, for example, blackness was not only denied, but also challenged with the powerful ideology of mestizaje (the racial and cultural mixing of Amerindians and Europeans), which excludes both blacks and indigenous people. Yet, black groups in each society have maintained their autonomy and challenge the official interpretation of their heritage as Spanish and not African.
The migration of so many Puerto Ricans to the United States has aided the continuation of a black consciousness among both dark-skinned and mixed-race members that often brings them into conflict with white Puerto Ricans. Class differences as well as the overt racism in the United States and Puerto Rico are also important factors in the development of black consciousness among Puerto Ricans. Mestizaje has had an even more powerful impact upon Dominicans, and their location in the United States has exposed the contradictions inherent in their physical blackness and their determination to claim a mestizo consciousness despite the racism that they experience in the United States.
In the English-speaking Caribbean, a consciousness based on color emerged during and after slavery. A white colonial class and a colored elite dominated a peasant and working-class black majority. In Jamaica, efforts to challenge this domination took shape in many movements such as Rastafarianism, the Garvey movement, and the black power movements of the 1970s. In Trinidad as well, black consciousness found expression in organizations and challenges to colonial authority. A black power movement emerged there in the 1970s, as it did in several other islands. These movements testify not only to black consciousness in the islands, but also to the links between African societies in the diaspora.
Black Cultural Tradition
Blackness, thirdly, is a cultural signature that transcends physical markers, and often transcends, under certain historical conditions, national identifications. It is expressed in language, mannerisms, dress, hairstyles, cultural forms, social organization, and religious practices. Languages formed from the amalgamation of African, European, and Indian languages pepper the west coast of the Atlantic. Dialects and tonal cadences of blackness in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and other European languages are spoken in African communities, and often are rejected as part of the larger culture in which the group resides—that is white or European culture.
Black intellectual traditions in all of these societies emphasize the heroic efforts of slave rebels and military leaders such as Haiti’s Toussaint Louverture (c. 1739–1803) and Jean-Jacques Dessalines (1758–1806); freedom fighters such as Jamaica’s Sam Sharpe (1801– 1832) and Marcus Garvey (1887–1940); civil rights giants such as the United States’ Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968); and revolutionary leaders such as Guyana’s Walter Rodney (1942–1980), Puerto Rico’s Jesús Colón (1901–1974), Mozambique’s Amílcar Cabral (1924– 1973), and Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah (1909–1972). Radical thinkers such as the Americans W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) and Richard Wright (1908–1960), the Barbadian Richard B. Moore (1893–1978), the Trinidadian C. L. R. James (1901–1989), the Puerto Rican Arturo Schomburg (1874–1938), the Martinican Frantz Fanon (1925–1961), and the American Malcolm X (1925–1965), among others, established the norms of black thought.
This approach to black consciousness often denies the importance of gender and sexual difference. Feminists and homosexual members of the group also embrace blackness, but in so doing, critique the masculine bias often inherent in notions of race pride, authenticity, and stigmatization. Black intellectual traditions have tended to construct the black subject as masculine and North American, thereby erasing the feminist and diasporic perspectives on black consciousness. These traditions have been equally resistant to homosexual perspectives. The perspectives of women and homosexuals in black communities render black consciousness as a contested terrain of gender and sexual politics, where the very definition of consciousness is at stake.
- Hall, Gwendolyn Midlo. 2005. Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas: Restoring the Links. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Levine, Lawrence W. 1977. Black Culture, Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Naro, Nancy Priscilla, ed. 2003. Blacks, Coloureds, and National Identity in Nineteenth-Century Latin America. London: Institute of Latin American Studies.
- Nwankwo, Ifeoma Kiddoe. 2005. Black Cosmopolitanism: Racial Consciousness and Transnational Identity in the NineteenthCentury Americas. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Stinchcomb, Dawn F. 2004. The Development of Literary Blackness in the Dominican Republic. Gainesville: University of Press of Florida.
- Wright, Michelle M. 2004. Becoming Black: Creating Identity in the African Diaspora. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
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