“What Kind of Black Are We?”

By Malena Amusa Aug 01, 2007

Originally posted at AddLife! With all the talk of what is Blackness going on and on these days–(in large part due to Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential race)–one writer pointed to an African dance conference in Cleveland, where Black Americans, Caribbeans and Africans came together, as a modern indication that Blackness in America is now a whole mix of things. And this mix has caused some political and social tensions, says Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs in "What Kind of Black Are We?" published in the Washington Post Sunday. Scruggs writes:

A few weeks ago, I saw part of the Pan Africanist dream come true. It was during the closing ceremony at an African dance conference. To a man — and they were all men — the drummers and teachers came from Africa. To a woman — and we were all women — the dancers were African American. Among the spectators sat a Trinidadian; her Senegalese husband and his twin led the class. As we circled, I realized that Africa’s children had been reunited. Then the circle broke, and the class ended. As we drifted away, I wondered: "What kind of black are we now?" That used to be an easy question for Americans to answer. African American identity was built on two criteria: African ancestry and an ancestral connection to chattel slavery. We looked at skin color, hair texture, and the size of noses and lips to determine whether a person met the first criterion. The second was assumed: If you were black in this country, somebody in your family had been enslaved. In the past 30 years, however, 1 million people have come from Africa to the United States — more than were brought during the transatlantic slave trade. According to the most recent census figures, 1.5 million blacks claim Caribbean ancestry. In fact, scholars say, the United States is the only place in the world where all of Africa’s children — native-born Africans, Afro Caribbeans, Afro Hispanics, Afro Europeans and African Americans — are represented. … This development hasn’t received much attention in a national debate that has made "Hispanic" synonymous with "immigrant." But the change has profound implications for the country’s 35 million blacks. It sometimes leads to interracial tensions, which were on display during last week’s CNN-YouTube Democratic presidential debate. A black college student asked Sen. Barack Obama — whose mother is a white Kansan and whose father is Kenyan — whether he is "authentically black enough."

Scruggs then talks about being in Harlem and feeling shocked that some blocks looked more like Dakar, Senegal. Overall, I share Scruggs’s candid observations about the booming presence of non-American Blacks in America. But I’m not certain where these will take us next or even if the concept of Blackness as a mixed-bag is new. In addition, the cost of this discussion seems significant as the diversity of Blackness even among these groups, Black Americans, Africans, and Caribbeans, goes unscrutinized. Beyond acknowledging Black diversity along national lines, how can we begin articulating and understanding Blackness and its internal politic more specifically?