African Americans and the American Story

Geoffrey Philp's Blog Spot
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness

In this bold declaration of human rights, the Founding Fathers began the story of America as a land of freedom. But with this optimistic statement came a dirty little secret: the subjugation of Native Americans and African Americans. Given the history of history of the earliest European settlers and the relatively short lifespan of the culture, the means that many European or White Americans would use to prove the manifestation of these ideals in their lives resulted in a particular type of American xenophobia and materialism that shunned any kind of introspection. Underlying these noble intentions were the all too human emotions of fear and shame.

Yet, as the Federal government expanded and grew increasingly dependent on immigrant labor to fuel its economic growth, the country faced a dilemma that grew out of the Declaration of Independence and the statement at the base of that great icon of freedom, the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor…Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." For although many of the newcomers did not belong the ethnic stock of the original settlers, they did come with expectations of social mobility and freedom. So, the question could rightly be asked, who is an American? And unlike Old World cultures that had creation myths which developed into a national literature, America's creation myth was enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In practical terms, however, the question, which became increasingly complex over many decades, was resolved in a crude yet effective method. The degree to which the newcomers would gain entrance to American society was the means to which their stories matched those of the original settlers: persecution in their homelands, voluntary migration, journey across the sea, facing adversity and eventual triumph. This story became the paradigm for American citizenship, and many non-European groups gained "honorary" European or White status, provided, of course, that they should also appropriate the language, customs, and mores of the original settlers. The Great American Love Story was born.

Forgotten in the myth of the Great American Love Story is the African American story which is much different. For despite the enormous gift of Alex Haley's Roots, the African American story begins with persecution/slavery in Africa, involuntary migration, the Atlantic Holocaust, slavery in America, and the long march to freedom that began with the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow/Segregation and the Civil Rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This story, as the Caribbean poet Kwame Dawes points out, has become the de facto definition of authentic blackness in America and the means by which immigrants of African descent gain entrance to African American society. It is also quite different from the Great American Love Story held by the majority culture and echoed in that quintessential immigrant's tale, The Godfather: "I love America."

This is not to say that African Americans do not love America. They love America with such fervor and devotion that they have paid with blood for every word, every comma, every dash, every pen stroke in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But this is a story of unrequited love. As the African American novelist James Baldwin said in The Price of the Ticket: "You reach a point in your life when you realize that the country to which you have pledged allegiance has not pledged allegiance to you." With that realization comes the awful truth: exclusion from mainstream America is based on the fear of Otherness--the presence of melanin--and the dissimilarity of the Great American Love Story and the Long March to Freedom which casts African Americans such as Malcolm X and Dr. King as protagonists and the hordes of faceless Europeans or Whites as antagonists in the ongoing, brutal story.

But what are the consequences of these stories? How do they play out when African Americans and White Americans encounter each other as strangers at a ball park or supermarket, each with their differing stories, yet sharing a common xenophobic trait of American culture? To a large extent, the encounters are marked by shame, fear, and anger.

For many White or "honorary" Whites, African Americans, especially males, are always ready to wreak their wrath on anyone because of the injustices of the past. The Long March to Freedom is interpreted as "You must pay for what your daddy and your daddy's, daddy's daddy did to me. I'll never forgive or forget what you've done to me and what you're doing to me every day." And because no single individual, White or "honorary" White can change the system of institutional and cultural racism, every African American, until proven otherwise, is a potential enemy who will use "any means necessary" to take from them what they have rightfully earned. And they have. But with this understanding of the plight of African Americans, there is always the nagging guilt that the fortunes of America were built on the exploitation of the American underclass, which is largely African American. And while others groups because of their stories and the absence of melanin have been able to make considerable economic and social progress, African Americans, remain at the bottom of the social ladder. The actions of some "honorary" Whites add insult to this injury by denying the validity of the Long March to Freedom story by saying in so many words, "My daddy didn't do anything to you. I, too, have suffered. My family has suffered!" and re-tell their version of the Great American Love Story which usually ends with the challenge, "I have done it. My family has done it. Why can't you?"

For many African Americans, it's not that simple. Their attitude to the Great American Love Story is summed up in the words of Malcolm X: "We didn't land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us!" The undercurrent of rage that is still palpable in the African American community is fueled by the absence of economic opportunity based on the presence of melanin. It's enough to make some members of the community hate themselves or to act out some of the worst stereotypes. For if there is no hope, why bother if you're not going anywhere? And those who try to forge some kind of freedom, like those in the gangster culture of hip-hop, it's a freedom built on negation that cannot affirm human values such as love, joy, peace, and beauty. They mistakenly believe that freedom means the ability to do anything you want when freedom actually means the ability to serve in any way you want. But even the word "serve" because of its association with slavery has a negative connotation, and this attitude denies the possibility of the pursuit of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." A life of service to an ideal greater than one's life is a life truly lived. Without service, the pursuit of life, liberty, and the attainment of happiness is vanity and a chasing after the wind. So, for many African Americans, until proven otherwise, every White person is viewed as a potential obstacle, someone with a Massa attitude of entitlement based on ethnicity that must be countered with the attitude, especially here in the South, "That ain't go play with me. Slavery days are over, cracker!" Also the exhortation of many Whites for African Americans to "get over slavery" comes as insult and gives further proof the role of Whites as antagonists in their story. And even the exhortation becomes a lie in the experience of many African Americans who carry the story of a brother who was acting as if he was free and was upbraided, beaten, and persecuted because he needed to be taught a lesson. Usually by the police. And those who show any signs of the audacity to dream a new identity free from the constraints of the story they have been breast-fed from infancy, that encourages the acceptance of victimhood are ignored. Or sometimes just plain beaten for being uppity by some who think of themselves as the last bastion of a retrograde system they need to defend. Usually by the po-po.

The intransigence of some Whites and "honorary" Whites to examine their role in the continuing economic disparity in America, and the lack of personal agency on the part of some African Americans to live beyond stereotypes and to celebrate the positive values of their community comes with a price. However, these actions do not belie the validity of the Long March to Freedom and the Great American Love Story. In fact, the stories strengthen the communities because they tell the story of who they are and how they came to be. And until we learn to honor both stories, we will merely continue to repeat the words of the Declaration of Independence, but never live them. For neither story is the full story. They are the story of America, the journeys, voluntary and involuntary, toward freedom.


Stephen Bess said…
This was an excellent essay. It speaks to my soul. This is especially true with Baldwin's statement in reference to "allegiance." I have relatives who have served in every war including the Civil War and I still can't fully call myself a native "son." I'm a native "step-son."
This is why so many Africans in America feel such a kinship to Africa. We feel this kinship for obvious reasons, but also because America has made it very difficult for the African here to feel at home. As a matter of fact, if you speak out against this system the first thing they tell you to do is "Go the f@!k back to Africa!"
Dear Stephen,

I am glad you liked it. It was by reading Baldwin that I became aware of the full frustration of African Americans in America--being Americans and yet not able to fully embrace or being embraced by America.

I am now working on an essay about Caribbean Americans, African Americans and as James would say, "Livin' in America."
FuzzyJefe said…
I think you make some brave and insightful points with this post Geoffrey. As a white American who's traveled and lived abroad, I can take a more "outsider's" view of my own country and culture. I do see the trend of America growing at the expense of Native Americans, African Americans, and now also with Latin Americans.

I'd be interested to read more of what you have in mind when it comes out.
clarabella said…
I hadn't read this when I hung up my second post for today, Geoff. I'm reading A YEAR IN THE SOUTH 1865 by Stephen Ash and thinking about these things. What is the future for African-heritage people in this band-your-belly continent? What is the future of this continent? What is the conjunction between the two? From Stephen Ash, the the following: in 1865, Kitty, an emancipated slave, leaving the Big House on an estate in Panola County, Mississippi, with several other slaves, escaping as part of an elaborate ruse to get away, an aided by two Yankee soldiers, let the truth be told, never mind that they ARE now free, tells her mistress, "Goodbye. I wish you the best luck." The mistress, whose maidservant Kitty has been, replies, "I wish you all the bad luck." As Kamau says, "How long/how long/ O Lord/ O devil/O fire/ O flame/ have we walked/ have we journeyed/ to this place/ to this meeting..." How far since then has the road to freedom been traveled, by Kitty, by all the folks on that Underground Railroad, and by all the poor Toms, who keep on dying "alone, without the benefit of fire"?
Dear Clarabella,

Interesting these fictions/names you create around yourself...but more to the matter.

The only thing that I can say is something James Baldwin once said, "We can't tell the children there is no hope."
FuzzyJefe, I am still working on the essay, but I still can't find a way in.

We'll see
J. A. Barnes said…
Related to the role of African Americans in American history (in this case, the Civil War), please visit

The story of the thousands of newly freed slaves who joined Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman on his famous March from Atlanta to the Sea has so far only been told by the soldiers and white citizens, but my new blog is a serialized novel that uses actual and fictional letters, journals, news accounts, official reports, and for the first time, slave narratives to narrate what happened between these two groups of people on that 300-mile long journey. Please visit the blog and follow the story, which will have daily posts from Nov. 8 to the middle of January, the duration of the novel: from the occupation of Atlanta to departure of the Union army from Savannah to continue Sherman's Total War in South Carolina.
Dear J.A. Barnes,

Welcome and greetings!

All the best with your blog and novel.


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