Ira Berlin: The Changing Definition of African-American





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

Some years ago, I was interviewed on public radio about the meaning of the Emancipation Proclamation. I addressed the familiar themes of the origins of that great document: the changing nature of the Civil War, the Union army’s growing dependence on black labor, the intensifying opposition to slavery in the North and the interplay of military necessity and abolitionist idealism. I recalled the longstanding debate over the role of Abraham Lincoln, the Radicals in Congress, abolitionists in the North, the Union army in the field and slaves on the plantations of the South in the destruction of slavery and in the authorship of legal freedom. And I stated my long-held position that slaves played a critical role in securing their own freedom. The controversy over what was sometimes called “self-emancipation” had generated great heat among historians, and it still had life.

As I left the broadcast booth, a knot of black men and women—most of them technicians at the station—were talking about emancipation and its meaning. Once I was drawn into their discussion, I was surprised to learn that no one in the group was descended from anyone who had been freed by the proclamation or any other Civil War measure. Two had been born in Haiti, one in Jamaica, one in Britain, two in Ghana, and one, I believe, in Somalia. Others may have been the children of immigrants. While they seemed impressed—but not surprised—that slaves had played a part in breaking their own chains, and were interested in the events that had brought Lincoln to his decision during the summer of 1862, they insisted it had nothing to do with them. Simply put, it was not their history....

...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....

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.



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