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CanadianReview of AmericanStudies/Revuecanadienned'etudesamertcaines Volume 29, Number 1, 1999, pp.49-86 Who AreWe?AfricaandtheProblemof BlackAmericanIdentity TundeAdeleke Introduction 49 In The Roots of African-American Identity: Memory and History In The Antebellum Free Communities, Elizabeth Raul Bethel (1997) identifies two critical events that shaped black American conscious-ness and identity in the nineteenth century. The first was the Haitian revolution of 1791-1804, which resulted in the overthrow of French plantocratic hegemony by black slaves. For blacks in the United States and elsewhere, the revolution represented both a "model of political agency and racial achievement" that was denied to them, and the potency and possibilities of nationalism in the context of new world experience. It consequently nurtured optimism on the prospect of transcending enslavement (Bethel 1997, 82). The second was the 1807-1808 federal legislation prohibiting ships flying under the U.S. flag from engaging in the importation of slaves. Blacks welcomed this as signaling an end to the long sufferings brought upon Africans by enslavement and the transplantation process. This enthusiastic and joyous response betrayed a growing consciousness of affinity with Africans. The legislation thus induced 50 Canadian Review of American Studies Revuecanadienned'etudesamertcaines optimistic expectations about the future of Africa and her descendants abroad, and many blacks began to envision eventual reunification with a lost African identity (81-82). These two developments, according to Bethel, "provided fertile psychosocial environments in which memories of the past intersected with realities and opportunities of the moment" (81). This intersection induced an ambivalent nationalist consciousness which, in turn, nurtured an equally ambivalent conception of identity. Blacks saw the antislave trade legislation as a positive development that they hoped would terminate the nightmarish experience of dislocation and dehumanization that enslavement and transplantation entailed.The Haitian revolution exemplified the ultimate potential of new world nationalism. Celebrating these positive developments, however, entailed coming to grips with an existential problem of self-definition-"Am I an American or am I a Negro? Can I be both?" (82). Consciousness of African ancestry combined with the exigencies of the American experience presents, in Bethel's words, "a continuing challenge to identity for African Americans, and it never would be entirely resolved" (82). This challenge mirrored a critical dilemma, that is, double consciousness, that many critics have since defined as the hallmark of black American identity ; a dilemma that entailed critical existential inquiry into the very nature and character of the black American experience, designed to establish whether or not the American experience could be deemed positive and satisfying . The crucial challenge has been ascertaining how far the American experience has satisfied the yearnings by blacks for acknowledgment as fullfledged citizens, whose interests, aspirations, and values are represented, articulated, advanced, and defended within the framework of the larger society. The absence of a correspondence between the aspirations, interests, and values of blacks, and those of the larger society has been a defining character of black history, and has informed conceptions and perceptions of black identity. There is, however, an added factor of equal importance in shaping black American identity-the denial and denigration of the black historical heritage, ancestry, and experience. Blacks manifested double consciousness of identity from the very earliest of times. Many retained memories of Africa even while struggling to be acknowledged as Americans. Rationalizing the identity question, "Who am TundeAde/ekeI 51 I?" has consumed the attention of blacks throughout history, and Bethel is right in suggesting that the question may never be satisfactorily answered. Attempting to answer the question has, however, provoked some of the most contentious debates in the annals of the black experience. Credit for identifying the focus of the modern context of the debate belongs to William E.B. Du Bois, who captured the essence of the identity dilemma. Commenting on the condition of blacks, he made the following poignant observation, "One ever feels his two-ness,-an American, a Negro: two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled striving; two warring ideals in one dark body" (1903, 3). Du Bois portrayed both experiences as vital to the formation of identity, and cautioned against sacrificing one for the other, for each possessed intrinsic validity (3-4). He conferred both historical reality and permanence...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 49-86
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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