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Black Americans: Pan-African People

This material courtesy of J. LaVelle Ingram, Ph.D.

As with most other identified racial groups in America, there are many different ethnic groups within the larger group of “Black” people here in the States. In the case of Black people in America, we include one major group (descendants of African slaves) and many smaller groups (descendants of free black people, Island immigrants, and, more recently, immigrants directly from Africa). While these groups each have their own styles of music, dance, dress and cooking, they also share many core cultural values. For instance, most Pan-African people operate within extended family groups. This pattern of living was so strong that American slaves, separated from their biological kin, adopted “play-kin” relationships with friends. Thus we may still refer to our mother’s close friends as “Aunties” though they have no biological relationship to us. We maintain such patterns even to this day.

Pan-African people also greatly respect elders. Because most African societies are past-oriented, those who know the past and can explain it to the youngsters are greatly revered. In one story, a modern-day African leader was told of the information available on the Internet, and invited to make it available to his people. After consideration, he declined, stating that “information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not wisdom.” This sentiment explains the reliance on the tried-and-true wisdom of elders. Of particular note is our reverence for our mothers. I recall, as a child, being surprised and dismayed upon witnessing white children calling their mothers’ names when angry. They could express their anger in this manner, but such behavior toward one’s mother would be considered outrageous among most Black people. Rather, we are constantly reminded that “she gave you life” and “you only have one mother,” and thus we had best show her respect.

Another core value of Pan-African people is creative self-expression. Whether we are dancing, singing, reciting stories or painting portraits, Black people have a long history of significant contribution to the creative arts. Indeed, there are few American art forms that have not been influenced in some way by African-Americans. These contributions occur because we so strongly support the individuals’ and the groups’ need to express strong emotions. If a child shows any interest in dancing, s/he will be given every opportunity and indulgence to acquire skill in that area, as s/he would with music, with singing and with other art forms. And within such artistic work, innovation is held in high value over simple mastery of old forms. So Black people did not simply learn American hymns and sing them as they were taught, but recreated them as “Negro spirituals”, and later sang them as blues songs and jazz songs, gospel songs and R & B songs. This cultural value is the reason that we are so overwhelmingly represented in American art forms.

Further, most Black people maintain strong religious ties. Regular attendance to a church or mosque is customary as is the inclusion of one’s religious beliefs in most aspects of one’s life. So you may very well see more African-Americans wearing the popular “W.W.J.D.” bracelets and necklaces, raising the Christian question “what would Jesus do?” You may also see more obvious religious items on such work-desks or hear more religion-based phrases like “have a blessed day.” The Black church has long played a key role in the Black community as a place of gathering that was allowed even when the majority group was more suspicious; thus the church has served as the unofficial community center, civil rights meeting headquarters and general corner-stone in maintaining the group’s identity. Many Black people became Black Muslims during the 1960s, claiming that the Christian church in America had played too large a role in our oppression. While this religious practice has continued as a separate sect from mainstream Islam, some American Black people have shifted to more mainstream Muslim religion. Either way, Black Muslims and Black Christians continue to value religious practice and life as central to proper living.

Importantly, African-Americans (descendants of slaves) have functioned for centuries as an oppressed American minority. An estimated 8% of the general population, we have struggled for equal civil rights, access to schools, to higher education and to the range of professional jobs for many decades. While we have made many strides since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and hold Martin Luther King, Jr. in reverence because of this, we continue to see the impact of this oppression in higher rates of unemployment, poverty and crime. Even today, many people view Black people, and especially African-Americans as the lowest colorcast of people. Europeans were very successful in exporting their notions of Black racial inferiority to its colonies around the world, and these notions still lead some immigrants to fear and avoid Black people despite our many wonderful qualities. Of particular note are fears about Black men based largely on negative stereotypes. Though most Black men work, raise families and go about their business like any other American, the popular view of them on television and in movies suggests that they are dangerous criminals. Ironically, these very fears often interfere with Black men being hired and/or advancing in many jobs. In short, most African-Americans live perfectly ordinary middle-class or working-class lives. Of course, given this history, our attitudes about white Americans can run the range from friendly to cautious to hostile.

An artifact of the long history of slavery is that African-Americans place a high value on survival at all costs and exhibit a low tolerance for signs of weakness. Thus, we tend to support a very broad range of activity designed to support oneself and one’s family. Individuals who engage in “street hustling”, selling various items out of their cars or on the roadside are held with equal status to those who punch a time clock every day. A man who drives a bus for a living may be viewed as proudly as one who has a law degree. The American tendency to give greater value to those with high degrees and more income has recently begun taking hold among Black people in America, much to the distress of our elders and social leaders. Further, signs of weakness are scarcely tolerated among most African-American people and thus we tend to expect each other to endure hardship, to overcome obstacles and remain “strong” regardless of our circumstances. One positive consequence in contemporary life is the extraordinary success of so many African-American athletes. The long history of slavery resulted in extraordinary physical endurance and strength along with a high value on perseverance. Thus, American basketball and football are dominated by Black athletes. One negative consequence of these values is that most Black people are very reluctant to seek either physical or emotional assistance when it really might be needed. This reluctance can lead to more severe problems that are more difficult to manage after waiting.

Finally, Pan-African people face our own challenges as we encounter each other. For instance recent African immigrants have typically lived very different lives than African-Americans. They have lived as the majority group in their own countries, seeing mostly Black faces on the television every day, utilizing mostly Black doctors, lawyers and dentists. They have little direct experience of racism in all its forms and are often unaware when different groups are reacting to their skin color. This behavior can appear naive to most African-Americans. In another instance, Black Islanders often come to America from Catholic based schools and churches, far outside of the experience of African-Americans. In short, like most minority groups in America, Pan-African groups are made up of many unique individuals, and you will only learn the real truths about them as you make the effort to get to know them, one at a time, as distinctive human beings.

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