Black consciousness is a broad category that encompasses things as varied as race consciousness, race relations, black pride, black power, and even rebellion and revolutionary consciousness as it relates to a historically oppressed community, nation, or group acting and reacting against its oppression. The scholar, Dorscine Spigner-Littles, an elder from Oklahoma who lived through the civil rights era, defined black consciousness as “being aware of the history of your people and understanding your place within it; maintaining the same level of commitment that your ancestors brought but realizing also that you are not blazing new trails but are simply carrying on a tradition with a long past.” Changa Masamakali, a young male hip-hop generation activist, described it as “a framework of thoughts that pushes you to action which is defined in a black nationalist or Pan-African way.” Although it began in all instances as a reaction to forces such as white supremacy, slavery, colonization, and/or social and economic oppression, in the process of developing black consciousness became a force in itself that compelled the group or community to look deeply within itself and seek out a self-definition rooted within its own history and culture and not simply its oppression.
A group or community’s development of black consciousness is frequently characterized by several specific realizations and actions. The prerequisite is recognition on the part of a downtrodden people that they are trapped in an oppressive system that depends for its own survival on their racial, economic, political, social, and often cultural exploitation. Coming to consciousness within such a system involves an awareness that strategies of survival must come from within the oppressed community. At such a point, the group has to remember the long tradition of survival and resistance that has been a part of the life of both Africans on the continent and their descendants all over the world for several hundred years. A deep understanding of the particular history of struggle that the people or group has gone through is also crucial to the evolution of its consciousness at this stage. How deeply it takes root and how long-lasting this consciousness becomes depends on the group or nation’s self-love and belief in the power of its culture to renew itself. The life span of this consciousness also depends on the group’s ability to internalize and transmit this new sense of itself to its descendants and the community at large. The evolution of black consciousness has taken different forms in the United States, South Africa, and Brazil.
Within the United States, black consciousness on the most basic level originated in the resistance to slavery. Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829), by David Walker (1785–1830), functioned as a black nationalist counterpoint, written by a free black, to the more integration-oriented rhetoric of Frederick Douglass. Reacting to the brutality and violence of the transatlantic slave trade and the institution of New World slavery, he writes, “The whites have always been an unjust, jealous, unmerciful, avaricious and blood-thirsty set of beings, always seeking after power and authority” (p. 16). The scholar Sterling Stuckey states that for Walker, “the essence of European character was … a desire for power linked to an insatiable love of gain.... Walker’s cry was at bottom one of hatred of the spirit of capitalism as well as of slavery and racism” (1987, p. 121). Walker went to an early grave, dying of a suspected poisoning, but his rhetoric laid the foundation for a radical tradition of resistance within the United States.
Following Walker, Martin Robinson Delany (1812–1885), abolitionist, doctor, and soldier, could be seen making the notion of black consciousness more of a reality than it was in Walker’s lifetime. He wrote The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered, after he and several black students were dismissed from Harvard medical school due to the protests of white students who objected to integrated education. His book argued that there was no future for black people in the United States, and emigration to Africa was a more desirable alternative. His novel, Blake: Or the Huts of America, imagined as part of its plot, resistance and rebellion to the system of slavery. The novel was also conceived of as a response to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which Delany thought depicted blacks too passively.
Delany traveled to West Africa in 1859 and apparently negotiated with several African chiefs, garnering permission for a new settlement of formerly enslaved Africans to occur in exchange for their contributing to the community’s overall development. Although this venture never came to fruition, for twenty years on and off Delany remained interested in making emigration to Liberia a reality. In the meantime, he was instrumental in recruiting black men to fight on the side of the North in the Civil War, assisting black cotton farmers in improving their business, working for the Freedman’s Bureau, and running for political office. In 1877 the Liberia Exodus Joint Stock Steamship Company was formed and Martin Delany was chairman of the finance committee. This particular venture was a precursor to, and may have laid the foundation for Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line ships and his widespread Pan-African movement to follow. Delany died of consumption in 1885.
Following in David Walker and Martin Delany’s footsteps, Marcus Garvey (1887–1940), born in Jamaica two years after Delany’s death, is probably the most significant single individual in terms of the promotion of black consciousness on a worldwide scale. His organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), began and flowered in the United States but had chapters throughout the black world. The scholar Horace Campbell states:
Garveyism brought together diverse working people, independent trade unionists, pacifists, cultural nationalists, women liberation fighters, militant self-help groups, socialists, members of church organizations and a whole host of unorganized black folk.... Garveyism used the propaganda … available at that time to give meaning to the claim that the UNIA spoke for the liberation of all blacks and for the liberation of the African continent.... On the specific question of the liberation of Africa … it was instilled in the minds of the Africans in the West that their freedom was inextricably bound up with the freedom of the African continent. (1988, p. 173)
More than any movement before it, the Garvey movement made black consciousness more of a concrete reality for black folks dispersed throughout the West. It laid the foundation for the Rastafari movement in Jamaica, and, as Campbell further states, “South Africa at this time was an area of intense capitalist penetration … It is therefore not accidental that the UNIA took deeper roots in that society than elsewhere on the continent [of Africa]” (1988, p. 173).
In South Africa nineteenth-century Ethiopianism, which was a fusion of spirituality and black consciousness, had spawned several independent black churches throughout southern Africa and helped to lay a foundation that was receptive to Garvey’s message. What seemed to have particularly struck the consciousness of the South African masses was the slogan, “Africa for Africans,” and the idea of the UNIA’s Black Star Line fleet of ships as a naval battalion transporting black Americans ready to fight Europeans and liberate oppressed Africans. Robert Hill and Gregory Pirio describe this period:
The recurrent myth of imminent black liberation from America was clearly an active feature in the South African arena of struggle, on the eve of the black mine-workers’ strike of 1920. A native identified only as “Mgoja of Johannesburg” took the floor at a meeting of the Transvaal Native Congress, at Boksburg, on 8 February, a few days before the strike began, stat[ing] that … “the Congress members who were sent to Europe are on their way to America and that they will get satisfaction there, America said they will free all natives, and they will help. That America had a black fleet and it is coming.” (1987, p. 211)
Apparently, many rural native South Africans at the time held the view that “all Americans were Negroes—who would drive the whites of South Africa into the sea” (Hill and Pirio 1987, p. 227). However, at that time the South African state “viewed all Afro-Americans as agents of racial consciousness who were bent on contaminating the African natives with visionary and disruptive ideas” (Hill and Pirio 1987, p. 225). Rural native South Africans—for whom this mode of independent resistance to the state, unconnected to any spiritual directive, was new—apparently viewed even the local leaders of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of South Africa (ICU) (a black, nationally founded organization) as “ambassadors of Marcus Garvey…and American Negroes who had come to deliver them from slavery … The image of the ‘American Negro’ ha[d] come to symbolize a radical black consciousness … [This was reinforced by the] multitude of organizational and political linkages between the ICU and UNIA and their respective leaders in Cape Town” (Hill and Pirio 1987, pp. 215–216).
Garvey’s influence in South Africa provoked a backlash on a variety of levels. On March 12, 1921, the Umteteli wa Bantu, the newspaper of the Chamber mines, stated that “the American Negro is a force to reckon with—a force which may well affect the destiny of South Africa through its effect upon South Africa’s black population” (Hill and Pirio 1987, p. 214). Further, heads of state who had previously claimed to dismiss the power of Garveyism expressed great national anxiety when Garvey announced that he intended to visit Africa. Despite conflicting views and reactions to the influence of Garveyism in South Africa, the movement is still credited with shifting popular black focus away from the belief that benevolent British rule was better than Dutch rule and toward the concept of black self-rule. Garveyism set off a chain reaction in the United States, and research shows that figures such as Malcolm X and former Black Panther Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt, among others, were the product of parents who were members of the UNIA.
In the United States in the 1950s and early 1960s, the lynching of Emmett Till (1955) and the struggles faced by activists within the Civil Rights movement created the conditions for the ideological shift toward black power, black consciousness, and black nationalism. Between 1963 and 1966 several events turned the tide of consciousness. Severe confrontations arose involving civil rights marchers, police dogs, and white mobs; Malcolm X was assassinated; the racism of white activists within the movement created tension over the formation of a new nonracial society; and the Johnson administration made it clear that racial progress would be slow at best and nonexistent at worst when, at the 1964 Democratic Convention, the delegates from the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party were treated by and large as the representatives of the citizens of Mississippi as opposed to those people who were members of the movement-inspired Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
This series of events, among other events, spawned recognition within the Civil Rights movement that America was not a democracy and that, despite rhetoric to the contrary, corporate values superceded human rights. Writing about Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and the movement as a whole, the scholar Grace Lee Boggs sharply summarizes and quantifies the implications of these transformations:
King’s great contribution to the movement was the clarity with which he stated his goal and the consistency with which he pursued his strategy. His goal was integration but his strategy was confrontation, and in the actual struggle the first was turned into its opposite by the second. The strategy of confrontation, or disciplined demonstrations in search of reform, systematically exposed both the pitiful inadequacy of the reforms and the bestiality of the whites with whom the demonstrators were seeking to integrate. Thus, while King’s professed aim was civil rights legislation and integration, the means of confrontation taught black people that all the civil rights legislation in the world could not solve their real grievances and led them to question whether, after all, whites were good enough to integrate with. As the saying goes, “Why fight to get into a burning house?” or “Why integrate with cancer?” … King did not draw the dialectical conclusion of his movement. This was the historical contribution of young blacks in SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] who pursued his strategy in every state of the South. Thus in 1966 the movement arrived in practice, before the eyes of the whole nation, at the concept of the struggle for black Power which Malcolm had been developing before black audiences in the North since his break with the Muslims. (1970, p. 213)
As Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Toure, or Ture) stated in the documentary Eyes on the Prize, SNCC workers were made to realize that the issue of morality on which the civil rights movement was based was in reality an issue of power. The SNCC workers had seen raw terror, and they realized that the political, social, and economic system of governance in the United States might in fact have no moral center; but it would not hesitate to continue to exert its raw power against the demonstrators, while allowing whites with implicitly more social and economic power to continue to oppress blacks without consequence. These events provoked a collective turn inward—a reassessment of the nature of the black self within American society. This was the moment when the U.S. black population began to seek a definition that was not simply based on fitting into mainstream society or reacting against it. This consciousness fueled the concrete development of black nationalist organizations as well as an inner transformation within the population resulting in a rebirth of black pride and an interest in African culture and style. Out of this era of black consciousness emerged iconic and internationally known black figures such as James Brown and Muhammad Ali.
In South Africa between 1970 and 1972, Steve Biko, influenced by his exposure to the speeches and writings of Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Stokely Carmichael, Martin Luther King Jr., and James Cone, wrote a column titled “I Write What I Like” for the newsletter of the South African Student Organization (SASO), in which he described the tenets of black consciousness and its relationship to South Africa as he saw it. SASO represented black university students who had split off from the National Union of South African Students, an integrated group with a philosophy of “liberal nonracialism.” The split can be explained in part by black students’ recognition that certain contradictions existed; these were best expressed when Biko claimed that working with whites during apartheid was like “expecting the slave to work with the slavemaster’s son to remove all the conditions leading to the former’s enslavement.” He further stated that until “blacks gained self-confidence, integration would be artificial … with whites doing all the talking and blacks doing all the listening” (as quoted in Sanders 2002, pp. 166–167). Despite influences from the Black Power movement in the United States, it was the specific homegrown conditions of oppression faced by blacks in South Africa that shaped and molded resistance in that context. Although Biko did not live to see the world change its official position on South African apartheid, years later an emancipated Nelson Mandela thanked Fidel Castro for sending troops to support the Angolan resistance, as shown in Estela Bravo’s documentary Fidel. Cuban backing of the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) made the training of Angolan guerrilla fighters possible and provided essential medical support to those troops. This created the conditions for the MPLA to resist South African troops in 1975, while also weakening the geopolitical position of South Africa in the region. Some scholars claim that it was this regional pressure that forced the South African government to make the concession of freeing Mandela.
In Brazil, with the largest black population in the Western Hemisphere, the development of black consciousness had yet another incarnation. Brazilian society is organized not by a system of apartheid but by the existence of a so-called “racial democracy” in which race is not an institutionalized part of the bureaucratic daily affairs and “black” as a category does not carry the legal weight that it does in either the United States or South Africa. However, these ambiguities apparently coexist with the vast majority of the black Brazilian population having proportionately less social and political access to institutional power than does the colored elite in South Africa or the African-American middle class in the United States. Frente Negra Brasileira was founded in 1930 as a black civil rights organization, but its societal influence was relatively small, considering the size of the Brazilian population and the impact that the civil rights movement and student demonstrations had in both the United States and South Africa.
However, African culture appears to have its strongest continuities in Brazil, of all the countries affected by the African diaspora. Here, the Angola-originating martial art of capoeira, the Yoruba-influenced spiritual practice of Candomble, and the rich heritage of Maroon settlements such as Palmares (one of the largest Maroon communities in the Americas) laid the foundation for a culture in which music and dance were inextricably connected to the fabric of everyday life. Although black consciousness appears to have split off from indigenous African spirituality in the case of South Africa, and functions in relation to Christianity and Islam in the United States, transplanted African spiritual practices are inextricably and directly linked to music and dance and a cultural sense of self in black Brazil. It is no surprise therefore that James Brown, as the godfather of soul in the United States; Bob Marley, as the father of reggae in Jamaica; and the contemporary music phenomenon hiphop have made some of the most significant inroads within this Brazilian culture. Since the one-hundredth anniversary of the official end of slavery in Brazil and the election of Benedita da Silva as the country’s first black female senator in 1994, a rebirth in Brazilian black consciousness has been taking shape.
Black consciousness continues to be a transformative part of the life of oppressed populations in the Americas, the Caribbean, and continental Africa. Its form changes and expands with the times. Although it officially took shape in response to racism and oppression, in the processes of these struggles, Africans and their overseas diasporic descendants discovered that their music, their dance, and the spiritual ethos at the core of these forms of expression had the power to transform both their own communities and influence the larger societies in which they exist.
Bravo, Estela. 2001. Fidel: The Untold Story. Bravo Films, Four Point Entertainment.
Campbell, Horace. 1988. “Garveyism, Pan-Africanism, and African Liberation in the Twentieth Century.” In Garvey: His Work and Impact, edited by Rupert Lewis and Patrick Bryan, 167–188. Mona, Jamaica: Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of the West Indies.
Clisby, Suzanne. 2000. “Ethnic Minorities and Indigenous Peoples in Latin America: An Exploration of Contemporary Commonalities of Experience.” In Papers in International Development. Centre for Development Studies, University of Wales, Swansea. Available from http://www.swan.ac.uk/cds/devres/pubs/pids.htm.
Hampton, Henry. 1987. “The Time Has Come.” One-hour segment from Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954–1965). Public Broadcasting Service.
Hill, Robert A., and Gregory A. Pirio. 1987. “‘Africa for the Africans’: The Garvey Movement in South Africa, 1920–1940.” In The Politics of Race, Class and Nationalism in Twentieth Century South Africa, edited by Shula Marks and Stanley Trapido, 209–253. New York and London: Longman.
John, Catherine. 2003. Clear Word and Third Sight: Folk Groundings and Diasporic Consciousness in African Caribbean Writing. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Masamakali, Changa. 2007. Interview by author, March 12.
Mochary, Matt, and Jeff Zimbalist. Favela Rising. Documentary, 2005.
Sanders, Mark. 2002. Complicities: The Intellectual and Apartheid. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Scott, Anna. 1998. “It’s All in the Timing: The Latest Moves, James Brown’s Grooves, and the Seventies Race-Consciousness Movement in Salvador, Bahia-Brazil.” In Soul: Black Power, Politics and Pleasure, edited by Monique Guillory and Richard Green, 9–22. New York: New York University Press.
Spigner-Littles, Dorscine. 2007. Interview by author, March 12.
Stuckey, Sterling. 1987. Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America. New York: Oxford University Press.
T’shaka, Oba. 2005. The Integration Trap the Generation Gap. Oakland, CA: Pan African Publishers.
Wiltse, Charles, ed. 1965 . David Walker’s Appeal. New York: Hill and Wang.
Catherine A. John
"Black Consciousness." Encyclopedia of Race and Racism. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 15, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/black-consciousness
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