The Black Experience in America is Unique

The Black Experience in America is Unique


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan, in their study of New York City,

asserted that  “the Negro is only an American and nothing else. He has no

values  and culture to guard and protect.”



The Black Experience in America is Unique

By Peter I. Rose



Unique Americans

The black experience in America is unique—it has no real parallel. And black Americans are unique. Paradoxically, blacks may well be at once the most estranged and the least foreign of all the citizens: most estranged because of their special history, which began in subjugation, continued in separation, and persists to this day under various forms of segregation; least foreign because, ironically, having been cut off from their native roots, they had few guides but those of the master and his agents. This is not to say no “Africanisms” survived. Of course they did. Still, most black Americans, for good or ill, were imbued with many of the same goals and aspirations of those of the dominant group. Many of their cultural traits were similar too.

What they said and what they ate, what they believed and, in some ways, the way they worshiped, were heavily southern Americana. And so with their names. And in these names one finds the true paradox of being both a part of and apart from society. Names are labels by which others know you. Black people’s names are those of whites, usually white masters. It is little wonder that one of the symbolic gestures in the new search to assert both self-hood and people-hood by young blacks is to cast off their “slave names” and to adopt African ones—or simply to call oneself “X.”

By and large this assertion did not come about until quite recently. For years black people—named Smith and Jones and Brown and Washington—quested often the American Dream and sought to take their place with whites. For many, the venture proved quixotic. Some succeeded, however, and became black equivalents of the white nouveaux riches, with all the material trappings to indicate having arrived. Others eschewed such life styles and sought other benefits in the dominant society, especially through higher education and work in the professions. They often found smoldering bitterness and exacerbated doubts about the rightness of seeking to integrate in the first place.

They sometimes proved more akin to the Arabs in French Algeria than the Italians or Jews or Irish-Americans with whom they were so often compared. As Raymond Aron points out:

The French never established an integrated society in Algeria. Ironically, the young Algerians who came closest to being French, by education and training, were usually the most hostile. But this is understandable, because they were the most sensitive to their rejection by the French ruling class.

Persistent relegation to inferior status and the internalization of values regarded as most typically American (such as the idea of individual achievement through hark work) have led, especially in recent years, to a different sort of response on the parts of blacks compared with members of most other American ethnic groups. Some began to argue that the more they learned about the wider society and its members’ unwillingness to honor its own lofty ideals, the less they should encourage their “brothers” and “sisters” to accept its basic tenets. Since whites appeared eager to maintain their position of preeminence, many blacks began saying that integration was, in fact, highly dysfunctional for blacks—just as it was in Algiers.

These observations are not to suggest that all social scientists who see blacks as the latest immigrants are white supremacists. But they may be quite naïve in assuming that admitting black children to white schools, opening neighborhoods, saying, in effect, “You’re as good as I a,” will solve the problem. Assimilation may have been the goal at one time but it is being severely challenged (see Chapter Seven).

Many observers have failed to accept the uniqueness of the black experience and have offered what in an earlier reference to immigrants was called an either/or response. In the present context the argument goes like this: If black people are not to be segregated, they must be integrated. Integration, in these terms, turns out to be little more than liberalized and modernized version of “Anglo conformity” (or, today, Euro-American conformity). Indeed and perhaps, ironically, the pluralism that many wanted for others (and sometimes for themselves) was rarely even considered as a model for blacks, the people who by all counts would benefit most by accepting their uniqueness.

Until recently many liberal integrationists—in the universities, in the government, and even in the civil-rights movement itself—saw but one side of the problem. They recognized but failed to understand the counter culture that grew out of reactions to barriers erected by whites during and after slavery. And so they said, “Throw off your unacceptable ways and become like me.” James Farmer, the founder of the Congress of Racial Equality, once put this point of view in very clear perspective. Writing on integration, he said:

… we [Blacks] learned that America simply couldn’t be color-blind. It would have to become color-blind and it would only become color-blind when we gave up our color. The white man, who presumably has no color, would have to give up only his prejudices. We would have to give up our identities. Thus, we would usher in the Great Day with an act of complete self-denial and self-abasement. We would achieve equality by conceding racism’s charge: that our skins were afflicted; that our history is one long humiliation; that we are empty of distinctive traditions and any legitimate source of pride. …

Farmer would probably agree that segregation and integration (as social policies) are at once logical opposites and two sides of the same coin.

This interpretation, until recently, was very difficult for many integrationist-minded people (including some of those who have analyzed the assimilation processes discussed earlier) to accept. They, like the segregationists, tended to think about black/white relations in dichotomous terms.

An illustration of this viewpoint is what Robert Blauner has called “a dogma of liberal social science.” The stance began with Gunnar Myrdal’s monumental volume, An American Dilemma, in which he asserted that the Negro is “an exaggerated American” and that his principal values are “pathological elaborations” of those commonly shared. Historian Kenneth Stampp referred to those who were “white men with black skins” and Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan, in their study of New York City, asserted that “the Negro is only an American and nothing else. He has no values and culture to guard and protect.”

These ideas were put forth by others, too, relying too, relying in no small measure on the work of the late E. Franklin Frazier, one of America’s best-known black sociologists. For example, here is what Frazier wrote in his 1957 revision of The Negro in the United States:


Although the Negro is distinguished from other minorities by his physical characteristics, unlike other racial or cultural minorities the Negro is not distinguished by culture from the dominant group. Having completely lost his ancestral culture, he speaks the same language, practices the same religion, and accepts the same values and political ideals as the dominant group. Consequently, when one speaks of Negro culture in the United States, one can only refer to the folk culture of the rural Southern Negro or the traditional forms of behavior and values which have grown out of the Negro’s social and mental isolation. . . .

Frazer went on to say that “Since the institutions, the social stratification, and the culture of the Negro minority are essentially the same as those of the larger community, it is not strange that the Negro minority belongs among assimilationist rather than the pluralist secessionist of militant minorities.”

Frazier, in our own view, may, well have been both correct and highly misleading. He assumed, along with many commentators on the Black Experience (both black and white), that to have a culture, a unique culture, one must possess a distinctive language, a unique religion, and a national homeland. As Blauner suggests, this view may be appropriate for what anthropologists would call a holistic culture, complete with the institutions of an integrated social system. To be sure, black Americans did not possess this kind of culture. But they developed their own life styles and sensitivities, often combinations of lower-class and quasi-ethnic characteristics, characteristics not brought from abroad but developed through encounters with racist America.

Black writers such as Richard Wright, LeRoi Jones, and Ralph Ellison—in quite different ways, to be sure—have portrayed the extent to which blacks have to respond to the “either/or” interpretation. In his brilliant novel Invisible Man, Ellison wrote:  

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, and liquids, and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard distorting glass. 

When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me. Nor is my invisibility exactly a matter of biochemical accident or my epidermis. That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come into contact. A matter of construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality.  

In contrast to most whites, most blacks find themselves in a perpetual state of cultural schizophrenia. They long had, and continue to have a sense of what W. E. B. Du Bois called “twoness.” One ever feels his twoness,” he wrote, “an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body …”

Vernon Dixon argues that “the application of the ‘either/or’ conceptual approach to race relations produces racial harmony [only] when the blacks and whites embody total sameness.” And this is an impossibility. Therefore, he proposes a new and different approach, called by the rather cumbersome term “diunitalism,” to which one simultaneously recognizes, the similarities and differences between blacks and whites. Above all the analyst (and, presumably, the policymaker) must learn to understand the ambiguity that marks the social position and often helps shape the personalities of black Americans, whose blackness is both part and parcel of their relations to white society.

Source: Rose, Peter I.  They and We: Racial and Ethnic Relations in the United States. New York:  Random House, 1974.

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The African Diaspora Revisionist Interpretations of Ethnicity, Culture and Religion under Slavery—By Paul E. Lovejoy—The process of creolization comes much more in focus when the merger of cultures—European and African—is perceived in terms that are more equal than is often the case. The Africa that entered the creole mentality was neither static nor ossified. We can go beyond the pioneering work of Herskovits and his students, who identified sets of cultural traits—”survivals”—that provided colour to the sub-culture of slaves and their descendants. This anthropological approach explores the formulation of distinct societies in the context of slavery; current research is adding an historical perspective to this analysis. For many slaves in the Americas, Africa continued to live in their daily lives. That experience included a struggle to adapt to slavery in the Americas and to re-interpret cultural values and religious practices in context, but frequently maintaining a clear vision of the African past and more than a fleeting knowledge of developments in Africa after arrival in the Americas. Only when fresh arrivals stopped coming from a specific homeland did the process of creolization take root.

As I have suggested, enslaved Africans sometimes interpreted their American experience in terms of the contemporary world of Africa, and consequently, efforts to understand their situation in the Americas has to take full cognizance of the political, economic and social conditions in those parts of Africa from where the individual slaves had actually come. That is, the conditions of slavery were shaped to a considerable extent by the personal experiences and backgrounds of the slaves themselves. They brought with them the intellectual and cultural lens through which they viewed their new lives in the Americas, and they made sense out of their oppression through reference to Africa as well as the shared conditions of auction block, mine and plantation. How to get at this carry-over of experience presents difficulties for historians and other scholars, but there is no reason to doubt that there was a transfer of experience, any more than was the case with other immigrants, whether voluntary or involuntary. . . .

Rather than maintain a few cultural “survivals” that are quaint and symbolic, enslaved Africans brought with them political issues and live interpretations of their own predicament. It is worth stressing that there was a continuous stream of enslaved immigrants coming from Africa during periods of growth and prosperity. Hence individual colonies in the Americas often received slaves from the same places in Africa, thereby updating information, rekindling memories and reenforcing the African component to the cultural adaptations under slavery. The extent to which linkages with Africa were maintained or declined into insignificance needs to be established. The ways in which enslaved Africans subsequently interpreted their conditions in the Americas and the Islamic world lies at the heart of the African contribution to the process of creolization, the forms of resistance, and the extent of accommodation with the slave experience.

There are in fact different paradigms for considering the communities of enslaved Africans in the diaspora than those currently being used: Besides being slaves, Africans in diaspora belonged to immigrant populations and they constituted what amounted to refugee communities, forced to migrate in different ways than modern refugees, who themselves are frequently forced to move. Like immigrant communities and refugees in other times and other places, enslaved Africans identified with communities which maintained links with their countries of origins in a variety of ingenious ways. Enslaved Muslims in Bahia, for example, considered themselves as belonging to the world of Islam; their educational system and common prayers were not “survivals” but active attempts to maintain and extend that world.—Studies in the World History of Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation, II, 1 (1997)—YorkU

posted 16 March 2009

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 Relations Between Africans and African Americans: Misconceptions, Myths and Realities

By  Godfrey Mwakikagile

 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: National Academic Press, 2005) 302 pages


Misconceptions: Africans and Black Americanser?   The Attitude of Africans Towards African Americans

The Joseph Project: Ghana Reaches Out to the Diaspora / Gateway to West Africa ? by Stacey Barney

Should the African Diaspora have free-visa access to Africa?

For African-Americans In Ghana, the Grass Isn’t Always Greener

African-American Association of Ghana Condemn WSJ / Marketing Ghana As A Mecca

A Rejoinder to The WSJ Article “Tangled Roots”  /  Presidents Clinton and Jerry John Rawlings  1999

Chiefs in Cape Coast, Ghana  /  Grand Durbar Parade

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Dentist Dr. Robert Lee

Championed African-American Community in Ghana

In the mid-1950s, Dr. Robert Lee, a dentist from South Carolina, moved to Ghana to escape racism in the south. Over the next half century, Lee became a fixture in the African-American community in the West African country. Dr. Lee died on Monday, July 5th at the age of 90. But few here in his home state, or in the States at all, knew of his work. But in Ghana, he made a name for himself. Dr. Robert Lee, trained as a dentist, moved to Accra in the mid-1950s. Over the past half century, Lee became a fixture in the black American ex-patriot community in Ghana. NPR

Host Michel Martin talks to NPR West African correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton about his life and legacy. Dr. Robert Lee NPR Interview

Dentist Championed African-American Community In Ghana

Dr Robert Lee passes on

Dr. Robert Lee (right) in 2009 with Kwame Zulu Shabazz

Cape Coast Castle. A Collection of Poems By Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang

Forts and Castles of Ghana by Albert van Dantzig

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Shortly after we republished The Vulture and The Nigger Factory, Gil started to tell me about The Last Holiday, an account he was writing of a multi-city tour that he ended up doing with Stevie Wonder in late 1980 and early 1981. Originally Bob Marley was meant to be playing the tour that Stevie Wonder had conceived as a way of trying to force legislation to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday. At the time, Marley was dying of cancer, so Gil was asked to do the first six dates. He ended up doing all 41. And Dr King’s birthday ended up becoming a national holiday (“The Last Holiday because America can’t afford to have another national holiday”), but Gil always felt that Stevie never got the recognition he deserved and that his story needed to be told. The first chapters of this book were given to me in New York when Gil was living in the Chelsea Hotel. Among the pages was a chapter called Deadline that recounts the night they played Oakland, California, 8 December; it was also the night that John Lennon was murdered.

Gil uses Lennon’s violent end as a brilliant parallel to Dr King’s assassination and as a biting commentary on the constraints that sometimes lead to newspapers getting things wrong. —

Jamie Byng, Guardian

 Gil_reads_”Deadline” (audio)  / Gil Scott-Heron & His Music  Gil Scott Heron Blue Collar  Remember Gil Scott- Heron

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Three shorter essays respond: Stanford law professor Karlan examines prisoners as an inert ballast in redistricting and voting practices; French sociologist Wacquant argues that the focus on race has ignored the fact that inmates are first and foremost poor people; and Harvard philosophy professor

Shelby urges citizens to break with Washington’s political outlook on race. The group’s respectful sparring results in an insightful look at the conflicting theories of race and incarceration, and the slim volume keeps up the pace of the argument without being overwhelming.—Publishers Weekly

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Ancient African Nations

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update 1 June 2012




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Related files: African Retentions  The 10 Biggest Myths About Black History  The Black Experience in America is Unique  Africa and Afro-American Identity  

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