“There’s no Such Thing as an African American”
Erasure may be worse than hatefulness
“There’s no such thing as an African American” is a statement I have seen more than once in the comments section of my articles. As a filmmaker and educator who has been documenting historic schools built by African Americans, sharecropping, and other central experiences in African American history for the past 17 years, I often write about what I have learned.
The vitriol in the comments (“monkeys are good at picking cotton”) that some people make about my articles is one thing. Yet at first, I was stunned by the outright denial of African American existence. Imagine if someone said, “there’s no such thing as an Irish American.”
The statement makes no sense. Whether their passage here was forced or voluntary, all immigrants brought culture, knowledge, and contributions to their new home. While culture evolves and changes through subsequent generations, no one denies it exists — at least, they don’t deny that it exists for European American families.
Denying that our neighbors have cultural heritage, one that is woven into the fabric of our nation, is an assault that goes beyond racist insults. It is the ultimate insult: Erasure. Information by itself will not cure hatefulness, but it would be a lot harder to erase our neighbors if we had a more accurate grasp of American history.
You don’t need the abstractions of critical race theory to see that what we learn in school about the African American experience is fragmented and inadequate. Typically, a few African American heroes are held up once a year, with little context. We teach children about Harriet Tubman, but not why she was running.
We put a few select quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on posters while ignoring his writings on economic justice (and the fact that, during his lifetime, MLK was reviled by 75% of European Americans). We laud the courage of six-year-old Ruby Bridges while glossing over the price her family paid:
While some families supported her bravery — and some northerners sent money to aid her family — others protested throughout the city. The Bridges family suffered for their courage: Abon lost his job, and grocery stores refused to sell to Lucille. Her share-cropping grandparents were evicted from the farm where they had lived for a quarter-century.
-from Ruby Bridges by Debra Michals, Ph.D. for the National Women’s History Museum
Incidentally, this kind of isolating, superficial approach is not what Dr. Carter G. Woodson had in mind when he started Negro History week. In another article, I sketched out how ignoring African American history robs students and saps educators’ expectations:
African Americans’ economic, intellectual and cultural contributions are regularly ignored or appropriated. It’s no wonder that so many of us are ignorant. Learning a fuller and more accurate version of American history requires deliberate effort. It’s important to realize that while the exploitation and injustice our African American neighbors have suffered are real, so are their contributions.
Just as with any group, these contributions are made both in the aggregate and by individuals. For example, in North Carolina the tobacco that was grown by enslaved people provided economic growth. A few decades later, George E. Davis fought to expand public education
Often, injustice has followed right on the heels of African American contribution and achievement. After WW II approximately 40% of African American veterans, who had served faithfully during the war despite discrimination at home, were denied the benefits of the GI Bill (see article below).
The ones who could access parts of the GI Bill were locked out of the new suburbs by redlining, and so lost the chance to accrue the $300K or more in home equity that the families of many European American veterans gained over the decades since WW II.
Obviously, one article is far too brief even to sketch the outline of all we should know. Instead, I am hoping to point out a few directions for further exploration. However, to assert that there is “no such thing as an African American” is to erase our neighbors as full humans who have, as all humans do, complex cultural heritage.
It is to remain willfully ignorant that many facets of American history and culture originated with African Americans. Skilled farmers from West Africa were kidnapped and enslaved to grow the rice and cotton that formed the basis of the American economy. Many enslaved people were skilled craftspeople who contributed to the material culture of the United States, including building the White House and U.S. Capitol.
Okra, that southern staple, was brought from African by enslaved people, who shaped what we now call southern cuisine. Jazz, blues (and later, rock) all find their roots in African music.
In her brilliant book The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, Heather McGhee exposes in painful detail how the zero-sum mentality that predominates in American life (“if you get ahead, I must fall behind”) combines with racial prejudice to deprive everyone of robust public goods. The book’s opening, which recounts stories of how countless American towns paved over their public pools rather than desegregate, is an apt metaphor for the various ways we have rejected public goods rather than share them with “undeserving” people.
McGhee also exposes the thinking that (I believe) would lead someone to type “there’s no such thing as an African American” at the end of a story that contained many well-documented details of experiences that are specific to one group- African Americans.
McGhee speculates that “many white people must fear, at some deep level, that given half a chance, people of color would do to them what they have long been doing to us.” (p. 239).
Yet in her introduction, McGhee points out that “The same research I found showing that white people increasingly see the world through a zero-sum prism showed Black people do not. African Americans just don’t buy that our gain has to come at the expense of white people.
And time and time again, history has shown that we’re right. The civil rights victories that were so bitterly opposed in the South ended up being a boon for the region, resulting in stronger local economies…”
Does anyone in their right mind ever say, “you should just forget the Irish potato famine that killed so many members of your family” or “you should stop singing those Italian songs you learned from your grandmother”? Yet African Americans get this kind of message constantly, in ways both large and small: From the way they were pushed off of land that meant much to them economically and culturally (see Pete Daniel’s book Dispossession) to the way schools punish African American students for wearing their hair in styles based in their culture, African Americans face hostility and erasure constantly.
So, while I still have much to learn, I will continue to say: Yes, my neighbors exist, and yes, they are human beings with cultural heritage.