- Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African American Identity
There is an important distinction to be respected concerning the analytic fields which comprise "history" and "collective memory." Whereas the former delineates the terrain of the event, often recorded and reproduced in the form of institutionalized knowledge and symbolized by material artifacts and physical objects, the latter denotes the culmination of the spatially and temporally situated needs and desires of a generation, a negotiation of the present deriving from an engagement with the past. Material artifacts and physical objects, in other words, possess the potentiality to evoke a sense of the past, but it is the articulation of an assemblage of discourses which serve to grant temporal stability to what form those representations assume.
Inspired by, and making good use of, discourse theory and the mediated generational character of cultural memory, Ron Eyerman invokes the notion of "cultural trauma" to exemplify the cultural memory of slavery in the imagination of the African American collective. Cultural trauma, Eyerman explains, is inherently representational by nature. Neither does it necessitate the direct experience of the members comprising the collective, nor does it in any final sense correspond to the beliefs and aspirations of an homogenous group. From Du Bois' narration of the "sorrow songs" to the discourses which comprise late 20th century film, the mediation of cultural trauma persists and continues to shape African American identity. In this emergent identity forged through trauma, slavery does not correspond to an experience, only to a point of origin. But it is that point of origin from which the formation of black identity in America has emerged. And it is against this alluring backdrop that Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African American Identity commences.
In Eyerman's assessment, cultural trauma as it pertains to the formation of African American identity derives not so much from the experience but the experiential mediation of slavery. In the aftermath of American slavery, [End Page 317] reconstruction brought great anticipation for what the future promised to freed slaves. Educating children and establishing religious and educational institutions was paramount. From the sources of empowerment which persisted under conditions of servitude would emerge the future of the emancipated slave. Former slaves, in other words, were less focused on what was than what will be.
The failure of reconstruction to deliver its promises of equality and acceptance signified the point at which the memory of slavery, cultural trauma, emerged as an important discursive resource for identity formation within the black collective. This of course neither implies a uniform process of identity building nor does it constitute essentialism. It does, however, draw attention to the argument that from the ashes of myriad ethnic distinctions — Ibo, Ashanti, Igba, etc. — emerged the social construction of blackness, race and, importantly, difference. Hence, the cultural trauma that was and remains slavery is, for Eyerman, the trauma of failed emancipation. Facilitated by the ascendance of an upwardly mobile, educated, black middle class comprised of charismatic intellectuals through the first half of the twentieth century — artists, writers, teachers, lawyers, journalists etc. — gaining control of black representation in a climate of a reactionary dominant society became paramount. Aided to a considerable extent by the expansion of the media of mass communications, Eyerman maintains that the question of how African peoples of the world should be represented has remained embedded in the popular consciousness of black intellectuals since the failed years of reconstruction.
Through a fascinating exploration of art, music, literature, radio, television and film, Cultural Trauma probes the internal conflicts over the form and meaning of representation and culture in successive generations of black Americans after slavery. Drawing from Du Bois, Garvey, Washington, Hurston, McCall, Johnson, Frazier, Locke, Elijah Muhammad and more, Eyerman details the continuous conflict which saw the rise and fall of a Black public sphere. Engaging the diversity and complexity of the social movements that emerged in the aftermath of reconstruction through the acceleration of the New Negro, the Harlem Resistance, Black Nationalism and Civil Rights, as well as the role of...