Racial Identity in the United States – A long road to ‘Selfhood’


While rifling through Facebook earlier this week, my bored, end-of-a-workday stupor was suddenly pierced when I saw posts appearing on something called ‘Black Breastfeeding Week’. My interest piqued, I pressed on a tab, opened it and read that the ongoing week was indeed the Black Breastfeeding Week. I wondered why such a week was needed – surely in the 21st century, all babies are born if not equally privileged but certainly equally eligible for breastmilk? Till I realised black parents have only been able to raise their own children for less than a mere 160 years in America! Black mothers were rarely allowed to nurse their own babies, but were wet nurses to generations of their enslavers’ progeny. Heartbreakingly, for most periods of US history, black breastfeeding meant only one thing - wet nursing white babies. 

Slavery was de rigueur for close to 250 years in America. It is over 150 years since slavery has been legally abolished but a century out of this has allowed some very acute and extremely legal discrimination in every aspect of American life. The sheer magnitude of what this means in the context of human rights, liberty and equality actually makes me stagger. I remembered The Help, 2009’s impactful and searing account of the life of a network of black housemaids in America of the 1960s and the resigned acceptance of their skewed fate that they displayed even 100 years after slavery had been formally abolished. I remembered in the same breath my childhood ‘besottment’ by the film Gone with the Wind in utter disregard of its matter-of-course and not-so-subtle exoneration of racial subjugation and felt somewhat ashamed.

This made me think how identity is actually created. Personal identities are formed by our relationships with our immediate world. We define ourselves through a complex process of our psychological and sociological standing – our sense of self is directly proportional to the privileges we receive both materially and intellectually. 

In James Baldwin's 1985 essay ‘The Price of the Ticket’, the ‘ticket’, according to Baldwin, is the granting of rights and privileges which makes one a citizen of the United States; the ‘price’, according to Baldwin is to become ‘white’, a decision that means taking away cultural differentiators in order to be integrated into mainstream society. Seen through a benevolent lens, the question of race and identity in America then is resolved through a genial coming together, an assimilation and a reinforcement of the ‘great American dream’. Reality however, especially in the context of American racial history, has a very different and bleak perspective. The question of race and identity challenges the cost of this ‘entry’ into mainstream society, which according to Baldwin affects ‘dimwitted ambition [that] has choked many a human being to death here’. What this means then is that the sociological, psychological, and political dimensions that affect the idea of identity in the US are brought into a very brutal kind of focus when looked at from the point of view of a person of colour.

Around ten million African captives were brought into the Americas between the sixteenth and the mid-nineteenth century. After the official end of America's participation in the slave trade in 1808, Africans continued to be brought illegally to the United States until the 1850s. These were largely ‘unlisted’ Africans who were imported mainly from Central Africa to the southern plantation regions and hawked in bustling open markets.

The general perception thus of Africans in America had its roots in the 1700s and it was all about them being uniformly ‘inferior’ as a set of people. This perception was fuelled and endorsed by the top strata in American society to maintain a perverted idea of social order. A deep-rooted social hierarchy based on race was part of white American society’s collective subconscious and this was implemented through political, economic, and cultural processes. Legislators passed laws that denied coloured people basic rights accorded to most white Americans. Economically, they were denied the right to own property, even to the extent that they gave away control over their own bodies. Culturally, governmental, religious, and literary institutions were complicit in spreading the idea that this group of people were ‘deserving’ of their depleted political, social and economic standing. Herein lay the foundation from which they, as a race, had to eke out an identity and forge it in the face of inhuman obstacles.

How did racial identity then foster under this smothering overarching atmosphere under which the non-whites were always “othered?” Or did it actually find strength in its foundation of violent deprivation; did it get shaped into fortitude and resilience on the back of an awe-inspiring movement towards change, fuelled by literature, poetry and song, and inspired by extraordinary influencers like Martin Luther King Jr.?

In his overpowering Pulitzer-winner of a novel, Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead takes the idea of the ‘Underground Railroad’ — a network of activists who helped African slaves escape in the decades before the Civil War — and makes it into an actual train that ferries fugitives to freedom. The novel is an overwhelming and relentless portrayal of the terrifying casualties of human slavery. Written in disquieting matter-of-fact prose (with echoes of Toni Morrison’s Beloved), the book follows slave girl Cora’s gruelling journey from Georgia to South Carolina, from North Carolina to Tennessee to Indiana, trying to fend off Ridgeway, her minder, and other menacing bounty hunters, informers and lynch mobs.

Whitehead’s body of work is actually a repository of racial history which gives voice to a wealth of some very real stories buried in its underbelly. His latest The Nickel Boys begins with the literal unearthing of a secret graveyard that stands behind a prison-like reform school in Florida (from the era of the Jim Crow laws of racial segregation) by developers while trying to build a shopping mall. They stumble onto bodies of black boys stuffed into sacks and the backstory of Nickel Academy, a segregated borstal in which children were brutalised and often killed, is unravelled with alarming precision. The novel gives evidence of the factual truth behind its story – and tells readers of the happenings inside the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, in Marianna, Florida, on which the book’s bone-chilling events are based.

According to those who track black history and demographic records, nearly 1,000 slaves per year escaped from slave-holding states using the ‘Underground Railroad’: which really was an underground movement of resistance consisting of meeting points, secret routes, transportation, safe houses, and personal assistance provided by activists, abolitionists, and sympathisers. Under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, officials from free-states were required to assist slaveholders or their agents who recaptured runaway slaves. However, citizens as well as legislatures of many free-states evaded this injunction, and thus the ‘Underground Railroad’ flourished and changed the trajectory and history of America’s racial identity in very significant ways. 

My initiation into racial discrimination in America began predictably as a child of 8 through an abridged version of the very biblical Uncle Tom's Cabin, a 19th-century best-seller. The book is actually credited with furthering the abolitionist cause in the 1850s. In its first year of publication, it sold 300,000 copies in the United States. Its impact was reinforced by an apocryphal story: it is said when Abraham Lincoln met the book’s author, Harriet Stowe, at the beginning of the Civil War, he said, "So this is the little lady who started this great war.”

By the time I went on to read Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird as a teenager, I wondered why when so many among America’s educated and gifted writers could see the heaving abyss in their racial history, did things not mend themselves? Evidently, the journey from race to identity is a complicated and convoluted one. As recent as in 2016 and 2017, To Kill a Mockingbird had been subject to campaigns for removal from public classrooms, and challenged for its use of racial epithets!

In 2019, nearly 3 years after America’s first black President has been voted out having unbelievably lasted 2 presidential terms, as I finish reading Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage and acutely feel the systemic debasement of justice and as I begin to read The Nickel Boys, I still don’t have any real answers to the question of racial identity. 

But one could look at finding some answers to this at stimulating sessions on the anvil at the forthcoming JLFs in Houston (September 13-14), New York (September 17 - 18) and Colorado (September 21-22).


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