"African Diaspora's Perspective of
Multiculturalism and Individual Identity.
A Response to Jorn Braman"
Philosophical Forum, Tuesday, October 26, 1999
There is a convergence between Professor Jorn Bramann's view of culture and mine. We both agree that one should not consider different cultural traditions as monolithic or exclusive from one another. Indeed, we can witness that throughout history cultures do not evolve in isolation or in autarky. And as states the writer and scholar, Jan Carew, there is always convergence whenever two cultures meet, whether they are sympathetic or opposing. Unfortunately, under the conditions of racism, people don't ever look for points of convergence in cultures (Jan Carew, The Legacy of Columbus, Audiotape).
From our perspective, therefore, cultures are not self-sufficient; rather they are made up of different streams, with different origins that are generally unknown to those who claim to be part of them. Consequently, even though we are born and raised within a certain cultural tradition, our personal identity is not shaped once and for all by one particular culture. Indeed, our cultural identity is not an essence, rather it is a process, just as our own cultures are not static or ontologically fixed. People who never left their birthplace, their country or their town tend to believe that their cultural identity is homogenous, that they are only conditioned by one cultural tradition. This, according to me, is an illusion. For the culture in which one lives is never frozen in time, but is in continual evolution, adapting itself to new historical circumstances and imperatives of survival especially as it encounters other cultural traditions or practices, even though that evolution may not be perceivable.
My view of human cultures and of the universality of "the human phenomenon", to use a Teilhardian terminology, does not stem solely from the reality of the present capitalist market which is progressively reducing our world to the status of a "global village"; my position rather stems from the reading of human history.
As far as race goes, while it is hard to deny the reality of race in a racially fragmented society such as ours, I do believe, however, that racial identity is neither fixed nor genetically derived. Rather, I believe that racial identity is essentially phenotypical as well as a social construction. I am black because I belong to a group that society depicts as the black race or the Africoid race. In other words, I am called black because I share common physical features with members of that human group. But, these physical features are of the order of appearance or phenotype rather than of genetic make-up. Beside these physical features, other shared characteristics with so-called members of the black race are a matter of history, i.e., of social construction. This implies that I share a common destiny with the other members of that group due to common experiences in history. Physical differences among so-called racial groups, as biology attests today, are environmental and have nothing to do with human nature. In other words, it was around 20,000 B.C.E. that the "homo sapiens sapiens", i.e., the so-called modern human, started manifesting different skin colors and physical features from one region to another. This was about twenty thousand years after "homo sapiens sapiens" had achieved its final stage of evolution in Africa, then had started migrating to Europe, then to Asia, and later to other parts of the world. Our physical differences, viewed as racial make-up, are a necessity of our adaptation to physical environments, including the climate. Progresses registered today in history, archeology, biology and anthropology are helping us to understand that there is only one human species, that all humans derived from the same human stock. While, some racially-minded folk may not like to hear this, we have overwhelming scientific evidence that all human beings are Africans in origin, for it is in Africa that the first sign of human lifeform appeared on this planet. It follows, therefore, that racial identity is not an essence and is not fixed once and for all, except when a racially fragmented society decides that it should be so.
Historically, the rigid separation of humans in racial categories has its origin in white supremacy that followed the enslavement of the Africans and Native Americans by fellow humans between the 15th and the 19th century A.D. Highlighting racial differences among groups was meant to enslave and exploit with impunity and without guilt "the racial other". On the other hand, however, the racial differences are being retrieved by the former oppressed and given new meanings, new destinies and new ways of being in the world, which are meant to empower these former oppressed. The slogans of "race pride" or "black is beautiful" for instance are meant to boast the morale of black folk who came to form a community of destiny. But this community of destiny was born out of their common suffering in the modern age or their consciousness of being marginalized and ostracized.
The racial identity of black folk, appears historically, therefore, as a negative identity; negative in the sense that it was born out of the consciousness of common suffering. But above this negative identity was constructed a positive identity, which is the cultural identity of black folk, the consciousness of their "Africaness" or "Africanity". It is at this point that emerged the so-called black ideologies of identity, among which black nationalism, African nationalism, and Pan-Africanism. Then, with a focus on a common culture, the human group called black folk or people of African descent are making use of their history as an instrument of liberation. Political and cultural liberation primarily, but psychological liberation as well.
I argue that it is this understanding of cultural identity in black ideologies of identity, especially in black nationalism, that is lacking in Dr. Bramann's analysis. I also argue that Dr. Bramann is mistaken on the true cause of sectarianism, separatism or exclusiveness in today's multicultural society. For the true cause of separatism or sectarianism is not the consciousness of separate cultural identities; rather it is race, or properly speaking the consciousness of separate racial identities. I argue further that, Professor Bramann's reading does not do justice to the ideologies of black identity if he equates their message or endeavor with that of white separatist ideologies. The only reading that does justice to the ideologies of black identity is one that understands that the latter ideologies arose in response to a situation created by white supremacist ideologies and practices, one that was/is hostile to blacks or people African descent. Black ideologies of identity, rather seek remedy from an age-long oppression of people of African descent; they seek to empower people of African descent who have been crushed down by white supremacist ideologies and practices. Ideologies of black identity seek to restore the dignity and self-esteem of people of African descent, as necessary predicaments for their control over their own destiny. Ideologies of black identity emerged not only as a response to white supremacy and European imperialism, but also because the principle of humanism or universal human fellowship championed by European Enlightenment has not been adequately defended by the apostles of the Enlightenment. Furthermore, the practices of some of the apostles of the Enlightenment have rather tended to espouse the racism that was rampant in modern western societies. The best example of this inconsistency of Enlightenment philosophers is Hegel with his racist and ethnocentric reading of human history, which he transmitted as a legacy to later generations of westerners.
It is also important to bear in mind that not all ideologies of black identity advocate separatism. Some do out of desparation. From their exposure to violent practices of white hate groups and white supremacists, the defenders of black separatist ideologies have come to distrust most, if not all white folk. But other exponents of black identity have organized themselves around this perspective in their struggle for political freedom and social advancement without advocating racial separatism. In fact, many of the movements for black liberation or for the promotion of black culture have generally received active support from progressive or radical whites in Europe and America. One such example is the involvement of most French existentialists in the struggle against European colonialism in Africa and Asia alongside black and Asian activists. Another example is the pioneer role played by Frantz Boas and Melville Hertskovits, these liberal white anthropologists, in the struggle for the cultural affirmation of African people.
From this reading of the African Diaspora's perspective on culture and identity, it is clear that not all movements or ideologies of identity are reactionary, sectarian, separatist, or conservative. The origin of some ideologies of identity stemmed from the failure of the Enlightenment's principle of humanism or universal human fellowship. And the defenders of black identity ideologies are unfortunately left with no alternative than to operate as pressure groups, which is the proper logic of a racially or ethnically fragmented society, that is the society in which we live.
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