Postcolonial theory and the African American experience.

Author:Lake, Tim

A century and a quarter ago deportation of the free Negroes might have been feasible; a half century later that was not a practical undertaking; today the deportation or exodus of the Negro American population is an utter impossibility ... Nor is there any place to which to take them. There are no more "vacant" places on earth.

James Weldon Johnson, Executive Sec., NAACP, 1934.

Retiring from the NAACP in 1930 to devote himself to writing, James Weldon Johnson, the composer of the Negro hymn, "Lift Every Voice And Sing," surveyed the international and domestic scenes and pronounced that "the world [was] in a state of semi-chaos." (1) For Johnson, the condition of "Negro Americans," during the opening decades of the 20th Century could not be separated from other geo-political realities. The impoverished condition of major European nations following WWI, the persistent communist and fascist threats, the race and labor riots in northern cities at home, the anti-colonial stirrings abroad, and the Great Depression provide the proper context for appraising the course of Black political action.

The solution to "the race problem" would not be found in the "exodus method" because there was nowhere to go. Johnson states, "[Negro Americans] and the white people may as well make up our minds definitely that we, the same as they, are in this country to stay" (Johnson 148-149). The Negro problem is the White man's burden, and the White man's burden is the Negro's problem. (2,3) The resolution of this conundrum of Black and White relations is tied to the destiny of America and her place among other nations. Black people in America, however, reserve the right to determine the course of their response to America's race problem. "White America," Johnson explains, "will simply have to sustain a situation that is of its own making, not ours." (4)

Johnson assigns the blame of America's racial problem to Whites and, by so doing, drains the counter-actions of Blacks of any moral valuation. That is, Johnson places the question of Black response to White racism outside of the moral realm. Even acts of physical violence on the part of oppressed Blacks cannot be judged immoral. For him, it is simply a matter of a practical response to an unpleasant situation. "The resort to force," states Johnson, "remains and will doubtless always remain the rightful recourse of oppressed peoples." He reminds us that America "was established upon that right." (5) For Johnson, Black response to White oppression must be judged for its "soundness" and not "on any moral or pacific grounds." Physical force is to be rejected because it "would be futile." Johnson writes, "We would be justified in taking up arms or anything we could lay hands on and fighting for the common rights we are entitled to and denied, if we had a chance to win. But I know and we all know there is not a chance." (6) The chance of a successful armed revolt by Black Americans is diminished by the sheer numerical imbalance: there are simply many more Whites than Blacks. (7)

The continuing debates concerning the character and content of resistance to acts of White supremacy ideology reveal the degree to which Black Americans perceive their condition as being that of a colonized people. (8) However, postcolonial theorists tend not to consider the experiences of African Americans when exploring matters of imperialism. This oversight has left postcolonial theorists without recourse to the African American experience as a resource for understanding and possibly resolving the knotty problem of positionality. Moreover, this omission allows for the false reading of the Western imperialist impulse as distinct from Black chattel slavery in America and Jim and Jane Crowism. (9)

In this paper I suggest that debates within the African American community over the direction of organized resistance to US racism reveal the degree to which African Americans understood their struggle to be connected with those on the Mother Continent and the African Diaspora. I examine the relationship between White attitudes toward Blacks in terms of the laws passed to prescribe (e.g., the United States Constitutions counted Blacks as 3/5 persons) and describe the status of Blacks within the modern nation-state.

Next I argue that White attitudes towards Blacks constitute an international discourse among European peoples. And this international discourse reinforces White supremacy ideology even as it modifies White racist behavior. The aim of this paper is to demonstrate that both colonialism and African American oppression share a common progenitor--White supremacy ideology--and that the African American experience offers postcolonial theorists fertile material for exposing and surmounting the oppressive nature of modern western discourse.

Scholars who make use of W.E.B. Du Bois' prescient pronouncement that the problem facing the 20th Century was the "color line" often do so without appreciating the context of its penning. Un-contextualized quoting of Du Bois, and other major African American figures, obscures the predicament of Black people in America by casting it against the narrow backdrop of a quest for enfranchisement. (10) This tendency comes from the practice of reading the Black American experience between the lines of the U.S. Constitution (which defines the rights and responsibilities of citizenship) and its accompanying Bill of Rights (which restricts the scope of governmental powers). For example, historians are nearly unanimous about the date when the American system of slavery ended. Such rare scholarly agreement is owed to the fact that on December 18, 1865, following a narrow passage in the House of Representatives, three-quarters of the states ratified the Thirteenth Amendment making slavery illegal within the United States. When the history of slavery is embellished by the passing of the Fourteenth (1868) and Fifteenth (1870) Amendments it easily collapses into a tale about the enfranchisement of Black Americans. Here the cry of the enslaved for liberation is translated into a mere clamor for American citizenship.

The passing of Constitutional Amendments did not resolve the problem of Black-White relations in America, although it appeared to ameliorate them. In a real sense, the problem of Black-White relations is "extra-constitutional," because the attitudes, motivations, and policies of America are, in part, shaped by its place/relationship within the international community. That is, Black-White relations in America reflect a particular manifestation of the pandemonium of White supremacy ideology. Certainly, some of the physical tortures and psychic violence endemic to a system of chattel slavery were abated through legislative acts and progressive persons acting contrary to prevailing conventions and customs; however, the struggle for genuine Black social equality continued. The state of race relations in America is, in part, an extraconstitutional matter in that the attitudes and motivations which shape and drive so much of America's social policy history are related to America's standing within the international community. The point, here, is that no nation is an island unto itself. While each nation may duly claim the right of sovereignty, this should not be construed as an assertion of radical autonomy. State sovereignty is relational. For instance, the colonists' Declaration of Independence (1776) from British rule would have meant little had the French decided not to recognize it and support the rebellion.

The nature of U.S. Black-White relations is related to modern Western discourses of culture/civilization and Western economic relations with Africans. Winthrop Jordan, in White over Black (1968), convincingly suggests the evolution of White America's attitudes toward Blacks beginning in 1550 when the first English voyagers touched upon the shores of West Africa. Jordan writes, "Initially ... English contact with Africans did not take place primarily in a context which prejudged the Negro as a slave, at least not as a slave of Englishmen. Rather, Englishmen met Negroes merely as another sort of men." (11)

Jordan also tells us that while the Englishmen were aware of the obvious physical and cultural distinctions between the Africans and themselves, their perceptions of these distinctions were related to the "circumstances of contact in Africa." Moreover, the "previously accumulated traditions concerning that strange and distant continent, and certain special qualities of English society on the eve of its expansion into the New World" conspired against a positive appreciation of the African (Jordan 1968: 4).

The Englishmen's first impressions of the African cannot be separated from geo-political developments occurring throughout the Western world. Like the Portuguese and Spanish before them, Englishmen would use Africans as a source of labor for an expanding empire and as a psychological mirror to envision their own White character. Jordan contends, "As with skin color, English reporting of African customs constituted an exercise in self-inspection by means of comparison ... Thus the Englishman's ethnocentrism tended to distort his perception of African culture" (Jordan 1968: 25). Further on, Jordan asserts, "The English errand into Africa was not a new or a perfect community but a business trip" (Jordan 1968: 27).

The trading of African bodies for "iron bars, firearms, liquor, beads, cloth, and other European products" required the participation of African leaders (Ginzberg & Eichner 1993: 13). The need for labor in Great Britain's North American colonies and the lucrative-ness of the maritime trade industry may explain why colonists saw nothing incongruent with exchanging commodities for servantry. After all, as Ginzberg and Eichner remind us, before 1776, close to 80 percent of the millions of persons who arrived in the colonies were under some form of servitude. (12)...

To continue reading