African American Identity and White Supremacy

I thought I’d go ahead and share one of my final papers in my Black World Studies 338, African American Writing: 1946-Present, which was a reflective paper on all the course reading and activities we did. I quite enjoy the BWS courses I’ve taken and this one is no different. If I had the opportunity, I would have loved to have majored in BWS. I don’t think you need to have read those materials or have taken the class to understand the overall point I’m making about African American writers, writing, artistic expression and the overall African American identity within America:

African American writing by its very manifestation within a white supremacist nation and its culture is a radical endeavor. That is to say, the African American writer is forced to write upward from a position of oppression and to do so within a limited mobility framework, i.e., navigating white spaces or in some cases, carving out their own new niches.[1] Inevitably, then, when writing from a position of oppression, where oppression is the lens – where using a pen is itself a rebellious act – then the words, feelings and experiences put on the page are going to reflect that oppression and the concerns with oppression. Throughout the semester, I’ve read works from Baldwin, Butler, Brooks, Hansberry and others that all reflect this sentiment; they reflect a concern for navigating within this white space and/or carving out a “black space.” After all, white supremacy is not merely an ideology or a theory or some abstract notion floating in the clouds: it’s a physical reality and African American writers have found themselves often confronting that reality.

In fact, the opening sentence of Baldwin’s Stranger in the Village is, “From all available evidence no black man had ever set foot in this tiny Swiss village before I came” (1705). That entire sentiment is a great representation of everything I’ve already mentioned. Black people often find themselves to be the “stranger in the village,” whatever the village embodies. And as such, they must figure out how to navigate within that context. All of which is to say, the endeavor, whether through protest or art or other means is, as Baldwin suggests, to get the white man to see the black man as more than a mere exotic creature, but rather as a human being (1708). He continued, “The identity of the American Negro comes out of this extreme situation, and the evolution of this identity was a source of the most intolerable anxiety in the minds and the lives of his masters” (1711). Thus, when reduced to its essence, my preoccupation with African American writing is with that of identity since blacks had to forge a brand new identity from the sweltering confines of enslavement in a new land with wicked overseers.

However, it should also not go unmentioned that the African American writer does not merely write from a position of oppression since once a particular niche has been carved out, they, too, write about the black experience in the intimate way beyond the purview of white supremacy. In other words, I’d be remiss if I characterized black art, black writing and black expression as merely reactionary toward what whiteness does or doesn’t do, as that in itself seems to be contorting to a certain type of narrative. Hansberry handled this proactive intimacy brilliantly in A Raisin in the Sun with the dynamic characters of Walter and Ruth Younger and especially the sister, Beneatha[2].

Ultimately, the reason these two conceptions of the black experience fascinate me, at once broad and at once intimate, is because on the most basic level, I don’t know what it’s like to have to be reminded of my race and more significantly, my “place” within society. And therefore, I don’t know what it’s like to infuse my art with the experience of oppression or to have my art marginalized merely because of my race.

Moreover, another consideration that has long fascinated me is the two paths toward black libertarian from white supremacy, both of which also grapple with identity. I mean this in two different ways. First, there’s the path of nonviolence and the path of self-defense; the former most notably associated with Martin Luther King, Jr., and the latter with Malcolm X. While, as has been shown in my previous writing, that may be a simplistic reductionism of both men, it was still true in some respects. Secondly, a common theme among them and among the Civil Rights movement at the time more broadly was religion. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were both religious[3] and the movement largely was spearheaded through the lens of promise, redemption and other religious wording manifest in the “black church.” Nowadays, perhaps spearheaded by Ta-Nehisi Coates and a new generation of black men and women in the Black Lives Matter movement, religious folks, like Reverend Al Sharpton, are not the figureheads anymore.

Rahiel Tesfamariam spoke to this in a Washington Post column this year. In short, she said, the activists of today reject the “identity politics, conservative rules and traditional tactics of the church-led movement of the 1960s.” It certainly helps, too, that the movement of today is more diverse with LGBTQ activists and it’s not about being well-dressed, respectable members of society. “This is a movement that encourages all to “come as you are.” Natural. Bohemian. Rebellious. Tatted up. Provocative. Ratchet,” Tesfamariam said. Compare her language to that of Martin Luther King in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” For one, he’s addressing it to his fellow clergymen, which I’m ashamed to say, I’ve overlooked this detail up until this writing. “Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid,” King wrote, further adding, “I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle” (1903).

Moreover, within the BLM movement, the same debate about nonviolence versus self-defense is playing out, too. For instance, there’s a group in Dallas, Texas called the Huey P. Newton gun club, created as a reaction to police violence. Newton, of course, was one of the co-founders of the Black Panther Party in 1966. Charles Goodson, founder of the gun club, said armed self-defense is a necessary proposal for dealing with police departments in America. Historian Thaddeus Russell followed that up, arguing that black liberation historically goes hand-in-hand with armed self-defense. Russell said the KKK was the first real gun control organization in the United States to disarm black people. “One of the great untold stories about the Civil Rights movement was that it required violent resistant from blacks to be effective,” Russell said. Even King referenced the ominous cloud, if you will, of black violence in his letter. “I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as “rabblerousers” and “outside agitators” those of us who employ nonviolent direct action…millions of Negros will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black-nationalist ideologies” (1903). A development, he said, that would lead to a “frightening racial nightmare.”

My exposure to African American writing through the Norton Anthology, other sources from the modules and also bringing my own readings to bear, have given me a wider, more fundamental understanding of what it means to be an African American writer and to exist within this wider socio-political and cultural context of white supremacy, but to also transcend those paradigms. Emerging out of this context is a concern for the black body, how to respond to physical violence directed toward the black body and finally, how to situate all of it within a religious context, if at all. The only thing for sure that can be said about African American writing, no matter which manifestation it takes in grappling with those issues, is that it’s presenting the experience of that particular author, whoever it may be, in that particular time; this is what he or she felt, believed and wrote about. In short, it’s his or her identity reflected in the written word and that’s most radical protest I can imagine.

Works Cited

“Black Open Carry: Why Gun Rights and Civil Rights Need Each Other.” YouTube. YouTube, 5 Feb. 2015. Web.

“Black Panther Party Founded.” Black Panther Party Founded. African American Registry, n.d. Web.

Gates Jr., Henry Louis, and Nellie Y. McKay. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. Print.

Tesfamariam, Rahiel. “Why the Modern Civil Rights Movement Keeps Religious Leaders at Arm’s Length.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 18 Sept. 2015. Web.

“This Far by Faith.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web.


[1] One great example of niche-creating is the birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll, which Module 5 noted as the “camouflage for the music’s roots in R&B.” Big Joe Turner’s, “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” in 1954 would essentially become co-opted by Elvis a few years later. Then there’s other musical stylings, like jazz, rhythm and blues, and just dancing in general. All of which go even further back than the early-to-mid 20th century to the time of the slaves and the culture they brought over with them and/or developed while enslaved.

[2] At one point, Walter says to Ruth in a testy exchange, “You tired, ain’t you? Tired of everything. Me, the boy, the way we live – this beat-up hole – everything. Ain’t you?” That’s an intimate look at the black family dynamic. While the play does certainly touch on the impact of white supremacy, this here is something altogether different that Hansberry is wrestling with.

[3] However, even with this context, it gets divided. James Cone struggled with the overall theme I’m discussing here, i.e., how to grapple with religion within a white supremacist construct. Malcolm X said, “Christianity is a white man’s religion,” and Cone didn’t know how to handle that notion. From PBS: “For me, the burning theological question was, how can I reconcile Christianity and Black Power, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s idea of nonviolence, and Malcolm X’s ‘by any means necessary philosophy?'” (Preface to Black Theology and Black Power, p. viii.)

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