“Can’t I just ‘be’? No. No you can’t. You do not have the luxury to just be. You must be great.”
This quote was taken from a recurring conversation between the black consciousness and the society we live in. Even with all of the social justice movements, systemic oppression, and manifestation of dreams happening in the 21st century, there are still two choices that we as black people are forced to make on a regular basis. We either assimilate or advocate. In this context, assimilation can be defined as relinquishing any aspect of one’s culture in order to achieve a more desirable standard within society. One example of this could be women straightening hair to look more professional in the workplace.
To advocate is to simply hold one’s culture closely by preserving its values and history.
The objective of writing this article is to highlight and rationalize how black men and women confront racial obstacles that force them to either assimilate or advocate with regards to their experience within African diaspora, success, and white supremacy. I chose these three topics (out of many others) because they’re relevant to the black experience.
One of the consequences of being a child of the African diaspora (displaced from Africa) is having the dilemma of either advocating for restoration after displacement or assimilating to the culture and etiquette of the country that they occupy. This is a result of the slave trade that happened in the early 16th century.
Take Colombia for example. According to author Karen Juanito Carrillo “by 1518, with the demand for slaves in the Spanish ‘New World‘ growing, King Charles I of Spain authorised their direct transport to the Americas… At least 10 million Africans from areas as diverse as Dahomey, Nigeria, Ghana, Luanda, Mauritania, Togo, and Angola, were enslaved in the Americas.” (2) (Carrillo, 24)
In those days, slaves had no choice of where they would like to live, how they would like to live, or even if they would like to start a family of their own. The only precious belongings that were brought along with them were the will to live. “Assimilate or die” could have been the slogan of their slave experience.
In the present day, the child of the diaspora is confronted with the same dilemma but packaged differently. Some might say that I was one of the lucky ones because my ancestors were shipped to the United States and not to another country that was deemed under-developed. American history has revealed that there, in fact, was no luck in the brutal and uphill battle for liberation and freedom from the shackles of slavery.
During the Reconstruction Era (a time in American history when the 13th amendment abolished slavery), we African Americans were given the heavy burden of building our lives from the ground up. Two choices were given: either assimilate to an evil culture that capitalized from slave labor instead of figuring out life on its own or advocate for those who had just become freedmen by prioritizing education and self care. Thankfully, pioneers such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. Du Bois chose the latter.
This would be a good time to address the African-American experience based on DuBois’ illustration of ‘the double consciousness” and “the veil.” DuBois wrote, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s souls by the tape of a world that looks on in amused, contempt and pity.” (1) (DuBois, 5) This description is nothing short of the African-American experience: an experience that encompasses both the black self and the American self.
Incidentally, to be black in America is to be a problem. Racial profiling, police brutality, and mass incarceration have proven that. If identity, esteem, and self-worth were left up to the images, stereotypes, and perception of black, then we would succumb to the label of criminal. We would succumb to being less attractive or less intelligent than our white counterparts. “The Veil” is a mentality that keeps everyone from seeing African Americans for who they really are. This veil is what makes the color line so transparent geographically. This veil reinforced master and slave mentalities among both whites and blacks even after The Emancipation.
Can we advocate while assimilating? Some years ago, I had the chance to visit my family during the winter holiday. We had a conversation about our names. In a frank manner she replied, “Your father and I gave you these names because we want y’all to have jobs when you’re older.”
I do wonder what my name would have been had my mother chose not to prioritize the fact that we live in white society. I view my name as a permanent link to a loving family. Honestly, my name does not bother me. What does bother me is the fact that both parents knew that raising a black son in the world came with the responsibility of representation. On the other hand, I am reminded of an iconic African African man who was born with the name Malcolm Little. Most know him by the name of Malcolm X, the X representing the sever between him and the white lineage that his last name was linked to as well as the true last name that is unknown to him.
In the second part of this article, I will address the following: How does success affect whether one chooses to assimilate or advocate within the black hierarchy? Are black men and women forced to chose because of white supremacy? and what would advocating look like in the present day?
(1) DuBois, W.E.B. (William Edward Burghardt). The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago, A.C. McClurg & Co., University Press John Wilson and Son, Cambridge, U.S.A. 1902
(2) Carrillo, Karen Juanita., The View from Choco: The Afro-Colombian past, their lives in the present, and their hopes for the future. (May 2010; ISBN: 1451565275 / 1-4515-6527-5)
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