The Roots of Identity and the Struggle of History
Written By Meredith McDuffie
What is an identity, if not the relationships between its culture? Identity is, in other words, the manifestation of one’s religion, country, history, language, background, ethnicity, music, cuisine, and politics as well. For many, politics are a personal, chosen part of their identity, something flexible and impermanent. For others, like Black Americans, the relationship between identity and politics is much more complicated. To be Black in America is to have a completely separate cultural and political identity.
How did this split happen? We must remember that Blackness did not exist (as a race, people, or identity) until more than 300 years ago. Even before Africans saw American shores, slavers had already begun the deliberate breakdown and erasure of their identities. Taken for their land, they were denied their gods and religion. Tribes were scattered, and they were denied their language. Families were ripped apart and kinship ties crumbled, and those ties were rebuilt in the hulls of ships and mutual despair, were decimated again when these kin were thrown overboard, unceremoniously, no burial rights to comfort the living. Slave owners were better able to control their cargo but severed from their homes, cultures, tribes, and families, these slaves had no choice but to rebuild a sense of ‘we’ and ‘us’ with the people who shared, if nothing else, the state and condition of their bondage.
Slavery was the building blocks on which the Black identity was built. To be a slave meant to be legally denied authority and ownership to their bodies (to be a freed slave was of little distinction; all black bodies were subjected to kidnapping, assault, violence, and a denial of full autonomy). Black people became black property. Any claim to their bodies was routinely and systematically denied by the country’s legislature, etched into state constitutions. And so to be Black meant to oppose this enslavement, and to demand the rights to their own bodies. The right to move about as they wished; the right to speak to whom they wanted; the right to their children; the right to their own hands, their labor, their time. By using law and government to control black bodies, they became tied together: any black body that claimed its own autonomy, in any way, was in direct opposition to government and politics.
If racism and oppression had ended with emancipation, perhaps the black identity would look significantly different today. But the attitude of oppressors did not change with the end of slavery; the black body was still seen as something less than human and something to be controlled. The black identity had no opportunity to fully incorporate their victory as the country slid into the Black Codes and Jim Crow, which were other legal means of controlling black people and dictating how much ownership they had over their own bodies. The Black Codes, which were essentially replacement slave codes, especially in southern states, restricted the movement of black bodies not only in public spheres but restricted their economic mobility. It became difficult for black people to buy and own land, to conduct business, or gain employment. Shut out from the economy, many black people were left without jobs or meaningful employment, leaving them to the mercy of vagrancy laws, which criminalized men who were out of work. Black men in violation of these laws were arrested, jailed, and sentenced to forced labor. The Black Codes and vagrancy laws were a not-so-distant memory of slavery, and so the struggle for autonomy didn’t change. The search for autonomy and freedom, be it economical and political, is in part what spurred so many black families into the North.
Black bodies have put forth various modes of resistance: running away from enslavement, publishing letters and slave narratives, work slowdowns, and armed rebellion. The 1960s saw an expansion of resistance with organized marches, sit-ins, and boycotts, and more, but what they all share is an inherent demand for bodily autonomy. At the very core of these protests and acts of resistance is the demand to control one’s own body, unrestricted by prejudice and threat of harm, to be afforded the respect of a person and a citizen. Protests were a declaration: this black body is mine and white people will not control it. Blackness was tied to this declaration, and to be black meant to be striving for autonomy, for freedom.
What gives Black Americans a separate political identity is that it does not actually matter what their politics are. Even though it is true that most Black people vote Democratic, not all do; take Ben Carson, or Kanye’s support and admiration of Trump (not the most well-liked Black figures, but they are Black nonetheless). This, too, is a form of resistance. To be free—to be a Black body in control of itself—means being able to do what is deemed inappropriate, hypocritical, or foolish. Being free means being able to choose that which is not popular or supported. And to flex one’s freedom, one’s autonomy, even by voting for someone like Trump, is to oppose a system that would deny us that level of absolute autonomy.
So can the Black body ever be removed from politics? The entire history of the Black body is that of a battle for autonomy and a struggle against the oppressors who would deny ownership. To be black is to know that one’s brown skin means they will be subjected to a system of power that wants to control their bodies through cultural, economic, physical, and legal means. Many have dreamt of a society in which the relationship between oppressed and oppressor is diminished, of a future that can claim racial equality, a post-racial utopia, a post-resistance dream. Whether or not such a dream is possible is a different conversation for another day. But what does the black identity become in a post-racial culture? What shape does it take, does our culture take, in a society where we have overcome oppression and our bodies are our own (does it, perhaps, look like Kanye in the White House with a MAGA hat)?
If culture is a reflection of identity, and black culture and black identity are both rooted in resistance, it is difficult to predict what the future might hold for us in a post-resistance society. There are a lot of questions and not a lot of answers. Our culture is tied so closely to our identity, which is in turn shaped by our history. Food, beauty, music, religion, language: all these things continue to be reshaped as history progresses, but they all have roots in struggle and resistance. The black identity came from slavery; so, too, did culture. Eventually, the future becomes history and a post-resistance history becomes identity, forcing an overwhelming question: can our culture rooted in resistance survive in a time when our oppression has been overcome? And even more terrifying a question: will we want it to?