African Americans Coming to the Fore of American Identity

views updated

African Americans Coming to the Fore of American Identity

Included in this section are the following entries with the primary source documents listed below in italics.

The Civil Rights Struggle: From Nonviolence to Black Power

Adapted from essays by Suzanne Smith, George Mason University

Excerpt from The Fire Next Timeby James Baldwin

The African American Intellectual Experience

Adapted from essays by Jonathan Holloway, Yale University

"The Past and the Present Condition, and the Destiny of the Colored Race," by Henry Highland Garnet

W. E. B. Du Bois and the "Economics of Emancipation"

African Americans in the Sciences

Adapted from essays by Dr. James Jay

African American Labor History

Adapted from essays by Erik Arnesen, Yale University/Brandeis University

"Pullman Pass" by Michael Harper

The Art of African Americans

Adapted from essays by Mary Kordak, Yale University

The Close of the Twentieth Century and Beyond

Essays by Gabriel Burns Stepto

If the first half of the twentieth century had represented an excruciating struggle for African Americans, not so much for equality, but for survival and for basic access to the day-to-day opportunities of American life, the second half would be marked with a violent process of rhetoric, followed by riots, followed by legislation, and followed finally by the seeds of change. Over centuries, African Americans had seen the sorts of promises the nation made to them; they had watched as the nation was born with their help, as the Civil War was won with their sacrifices, and as an industrial nation of the first world was created in large part through the sweat of their browsand always they found themselves locked out of the nation's promise.

The 1950s saw African Americans locked into a pattern of alienation: in the South out-and-out segregation and second-class citizenship; in the North a life spent working in the most menial positions and a cultural identity simultaneously lampooned and commodified from the representations of blacks in films to the phenomenon of the burgeoning beat culture and its interest in the "cool" culture of jazz. At the same time, the first seeds of change had been sown. In a process that would be repeated over and over in American history, African American culture was to be consumed by those on the fringes of society and eventually by elements of the white middle class. Beat poets, African American and white novelists alike, and of course the early years of rock and roll were beginning to bring the two sides of America into increasingly closer contact.

The first trickle of cultural integration came in the 1950s and early 1960s. Artists such as Miles Davis, James Baldwin, and Sidney Poitier had begun to burst onto the national stage. They forced America to realize that African Americans had much to contribute. That said, it was still a bitter, divisive period; by the time African American leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X entered the national consciousness and the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, the nation would be forced to look at itself in a way that it had struggled to avoid for more than two centuries.

The Emergence of the Twentieth-Century Preacher/Leader: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) and Malcolm X (1925-1965)

A tradition of African American leadership has grown up out of religious practices that date back to the days of slavery. Slaveholders usually allowed religious (and no other) gatherings. Through the years the connection between politics and religion has remained strong.

This history produced one of the greatest orators and social visionaries in modern history. Martin Luther King Jr. eloquently synthesized the values he found in his Christian faith and the desperate needs for equality and justice in black communities in America.

Malcolm X, another leader who emerged from the same tradition, advocated a different approach to achieving goals. He believed that King's policies of nonviolent demonstration and "engaging the enemy" would be met with a familiar combination of placating words and inaction that African Americans had seen in the United States for more than two centuries. Malcolm X sought to strike fear into the hearts of white America, promising social destruction of biblical proportions and a kind of ongoing psychological terrorism between the black and white races. He also stated in his interactions with other civil rights leaders that his goal was to cause white America to realize they had to capitulate to the reasonable and eloquent requests of the oneMartin Luther King Jr.or they would have to deal with the violence of the other. In retrospect, there can be little doubt that although King is often celebrated as a great American hero and leader, it is likely that the synergies created by followers of both King and Malcolm X produced some of the results so long sought after during the Civil Rights movement.

About this article

African Americans Coming to the Fore of American Identity

Updated About content Print Article


African Americans Coming to the Fore of American Identity