Paul R. Lehman, Bringing African American into the 21st Century

March 1, 2010 at 5:27 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The time has come to make the change from the past to the present and future. What that means is taking charge of who we are and how we want others to see us. Back in 1903 when W.E.B. DuBois published his book of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, the image as well as the value of the African American was very negative. The social value of the African American was captured in a term measuring the value of the Negro, black, colored, as not even coming up to the level of excrement. Add to that argument the numerous scientific and religious publications produced questioning his being human and we realize the challenge confronting DuBois was enormous. Of all the comments made by DuBois in his book, the one that received the most attention was his statement of the color line being the problem of the 20th century. That comment raised the level of consciousness of many Americans relative to the African American’s humanity. Unfortunately, it also left a number of problems in place.

                What DuBois meant by the “color line” was a reference to the symbolic value of the majority European American population and the African American population. Each group was known respectively as white and black. The value for the white was positive, and for the black, negative. The negative experiences encountered by the African Americans included biases, bigotry, discrimination, beatings, arrests, and death among others. Although DuBois addresses many of these problems, he fails to correct or challenge one of the biggest problems of the day, the identity of African Americans. He forgot or overlooked the fact that America’s government and businesses created the names Negro, black, colored, nigger, Cuff, and a host of others, to underscore their lack of positive value. So what does this have to do with bringing African American into the 21st century? The answer is that moving from Negro to blacks to African Americans recaptures a positive self-value and self worth to their humanity.

                America assumed that the names given to the Africans were suitable for them. These names were thought to be so suitable that they were applied to all Africans, slave or free. A few African Americans and European Americans tried unsuccessfully in the 1700 and 1800’s to change the name to African American. What society was successful in doing, however, was to emphasize the negative value of black, but also of Africa. Most people thought of Africa as a country, not a continent, and began a campaign to denigrate it in every possible way. The idea was to make the African American and Africa so despicable that no one would want to be associated with either. The campaign worked so well that even African Americans used both words as a form of insults to one another. Few if any Americans challenged the words Negro, Colored, black, as legitimate. Many organizations incorporated the words in their names, not fully realizing their negative connotations. Since all the social and cultural institutions in America underscored the use of the words, they were generally accepted without question.

                In the late 1950’s and ‘60’s, shortly after Brown v. Topeka Broad of education, many young African Americans began to challenge the negative connotation of being black. That challenge turned into the Black Cultural Revolution and grew alongside the Civil Rights Movement. The Black Cultural Revolution was successful in changing the negative connotation of black to a positive one. However, the change affected only African Americans. Since nothing changed from the rest of America as far as black was concerned, the negative connotations continued.  European Americans could refer to an African American as being black without fear of being rebuffed or corrected. African Americans evidently thought that the nation would grow along with them as they developed a positive self image. They were disappointed. While a positive self-image as a black American was taking hold in the African American community, positive efforts and opportunities were being realized as well resulting in a sizable number of African Americans experiencing upward social mobility. Much of the economic and educational opportunities experienced by African Americans were in part a result of WWII and the Korean War and the benefits afforded the vets.  Many things changed except the negative image of blacks in America.

                From the 1970s to the present, African Americans have been using the words black and African American interchangeably. After rejecting the word Negro, these terms seemed to reflect the positive values they sought. Unfortunately, the negative connotations associated with the word black began to create a problem for some African Americans. Having had their identity wedded to the word black, they questioned the logic of retaining a symbol of enslavement. Also, the word does not embody any positive values except those created in or about the African America community by African Americans. For sure, many African Americans appreciate the hardships experienced by so-called black Americans as well as many of the successes. The word black, however, restricts and confines the accomplishments of African Americans to a separate group of people in a separate community that is perceived as not fully on a par with the majority society. In essence, the word black keeps the image of African Americans bound to slavery and the negative connotations associated with that system. In addition, the word black does not identify a culture or a country. The time has come to move forward into the 21st century leaving behind the word black as a term of identity.

                African Americans can never truly reclaim their identity because the one that was lost was not wholly theirs, only a portion of who they are. DuBois described the American Negro/ black as having two warring souls in one body, one African, the other Negro. He saw neither one as positive or acceptable to the majority American society. The problem for the Negro/black at that time was to try and find a positive, whole self image in a society that made it impossible to do so. DuBois’ mistake was to try and solve the problem of a negative self image by staying inside the majority perception of African Americans and using majority language; that is, DuBois accepted the names given the slaves—negro, black, and colored not realizing that he could never separate the negative connotations that helped to create those words. He forgot that Africans were brought or came to America, not slaves, Negroes, blacks or coloreds. Society, by making the names used to identify African Americans negative, and creating a negative and unacceptable image of Africa and Africans, made finding a positive self image in society was impossible.

                DuBois can rest easy now because African Americans have stepped outside of the Negro/black box to gain a better perspective of who they are. The two souls are no longer at war because when they view Africa and African Americans from a different perspective, they realize that they both have positive values. They changed the negative images of Negros, blacks, and Africa to a positive by accepting the legitimacy of an African ancestry along with their contribution and participation with the culture of America, and forged a new identity– African American.

                The battle DuBois described was between the negative self images held by the individual souls and the negative images of the individuals created by society. The battle’s objective was to try and find a new, whole, and positive self that made him part of the human race, a full-fledged human being. Today, those warring souls have been reconciled in the African American. The problem and challenge of the 21st Century will be for the African American to find ways to experience, express, and expand a new, strong, confident, proud and positive self image. The veil has not only been removed, but also casted aside.



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  1. Excellent investigation of the illusive enigma and internal battle that compelled DuBois to write this profound analysis of the selves/souls of African Americans. Perhaps DuBois can rest easy now but cerainly not comfortably because the success of many African Americans rest largely on the state of grace granted by Europeans Americans. Praise-worthy are those African Americans who “get it.” The “get it” folks are continuing to foster, search for and show a yearning for the simple truths taught by their parents. You are an esteemed gift from God; get a good education; work hard; and stay out of trouble were some of the positive values engraved in our psyche/soul. The change from the negative image to a positive image was derived by continuous validation from parents and family members. They modeled expected values and encouraged daily reading and stimulated dialogue related to current events and the world beyond our neighborhood. Constructing a positive new identity for African Americans demands the luxuriant relabeling of our selves as African American (not the insensate color black). The renaisance of the soul begins with knowledge. Thank you for your insights!!

  2. I’d love to see you write an addendum to this piece.

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