Putting the ‘American’ into ‘African American’

Note: 29 Dec 2014. I’ve received a staggering number of requests to re-publish this old post in light of current events in the US. It’s been humbling, to say the least. I’ve mulled those requests over. As it seems to have struck a chord, I offer it for review once more.

Genealogy has opened my eyes in more ways than one. By unraveling my family’s complex story, I’ve learned just how genuinely American my family is. Sure, I always knew that I was an American. I was born in the US and lived there until I graduated from university. It’s right there on my passport. However, I never really felt what it was to be an American. That invitation never seemed to arrive in the mail.

With that said, I never really thought about what being an American actually meant when I was growing up. It’s not a conversation I’ve ever had with a fellow African American. It’s not a conversation I ever had with anyone while growing up in the US. Somehow, by dint of my skin, there was a tacit implication that American history wasn’t my history – and by that, I mean that American history somehow wasn’t a history that involved or included African Americans. Oh sure, African Americans had a history…but that history was anything but mainstream American history. Mirroring the history of the First Nation people, it’s brutal, embarrassing, shameful, distressing, horrific, and savage. It has been a Pandora’s box that’s been left closed. In my opinion, that’s where things went wrong. If I’ve discovered anything in my foray into black genealogy and history, we too have a rich history, albeit tricky and challenging to uncover.

Like every other ethnic group in the US, ours is a people of a myriad of different backgrounds, experiences, and a rich, vibrant culture. As a people, African Americans contributed to the daily fabric of colonial and post-colonial life.

Chances are if you are an African American, you have an old ancestral footprint on America’s shores stretching back before the American Revolution. What’s the big deal about that? It means you have ancestors who lived, raised a family (if they were allowed to do so), and died alongside the first great wave of immigration before the Revolutionary War. Whether they were free, indentured servants, or slaves, they lived and died in the American colonies and were among the first Americans. Okay, so the chances are pretty good that they may not have possessed legal rights or the full rights of citizens (kind of hard to do when you were counted as being three-fifths of a human being) – but that can’t ever take away from the fact that they were indeed part of the fabric of America from its earliest days. The French-English Wars of North America, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, The Spanish-American War…look, and you will find the black Americans who fought in all of these wars and battles. And that is a fact that no one can take away from American people of color. Not that this is taught in schools.

As I ponder why African Americans have been perceived as wholly ‘other,’ a people without a recognized history in the US, I think I’ve intuited a pretty logical answer. Like the First Nation’s experience, the US has never come to terms with slavery. Why did a country with such promise and a Constitution that inspired not only the French Revolution but the European revolutions of 1848 (Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy, the revolt within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Russia) deny an entire group of people true freedom?

That’s not an easy one to answer. It means seeing African Americans as a people. It means seeing them as human beings.

For me, the answer to this goes beyond guilt. How does an oppressor come to grips with the past when they see a formerly oppressed people making great strides so quickly after liberation? If a race of people were capable of such advancements and progress in all manner of spheres after the Civil War…what could their ancestors have been capable of before the Civil War? What geniuses – be they literary, scientific, artistic, philosophical thinkers, engineering, etc. – were lost to slavery? In other words, apart from the apparent, what was slavery’s actual toll and cost on America and its African American populace? This admission would have been a brutal, horrible, and terrible truth to contemplate. So awful that it really hasn’t ever been made. All of that collective and unrealized intellectual capital and enterprise lost forever. The result is an aspect of American slavery that hasn’t been readily discussed or acknowledged. I see the staunch reluctance to recognize slavery’s inheritance in the quick dismissal or derision of movements like African American History Month.

To see black Americans as a people at the close of the Civil War demanded accepting and seeing them as people, as human beings, during the slavery period. We didn’t become a ‘people’ or ‘human beings’ just because we were freed. We’d always been these things. To see black Americans as a people was to acknowledge they loved, hoped, had ambitions and aspirations, feared for themselves and their family, possessed a spirituality, had ambition, and their own culture and traditions, prized learning…all the things that any other member of a society could want or wish. It made them three-dimension human beings and not two-dimensional caricatures. That’s what made the realization of what was done too horrific to address or contemplate. Instead of facing this head-on, another way was chosen – subjection, humiliation, and oppression — the Jim Crow Era, in other words.

We may not have as many Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution as our European counterparts. However, you can bet you had ancestors on American soil alongside their ancestors. And you never know, the chances are good that you have at least one black ancestor who fought in that defining war. If not that one, certainly in other military conflicts that have defined the American nation. That’s something that can never be stripped away…and one of the bonuses for researching family history.

As for me?  My family research has made me re-define my American-ness. I have a deeper connection with the land of my birth. And that has happened mainly through researching my family. Where that intangible connection didn’t seem to have any substance…it sure does now! Me, and my family as a whole, are as American as it gets. No one and nothing can rob us of that.

And the next time I hear that black Americans don’t have a history, I have my answer ready: ‘Sorry, but I beg to differ’.

3 thoughts on “Putting the ‘American’ into ‘African American’

  1. Thanks for this story / essay. As the descendant of European Americans who abducted, sold and held enslaved people for their own economic benefit, I am appalled and ashamed at how my ancestors were able to deny the humanity and genius of the people they enslaved. I agree with you, that European Americans continue to deny and stay ignorant about what their ancestors did and its continuing legacy. I would invite you and readers to learn about Coming to the Table, an organization seeking to address these issues.

  2. Thanks Brian for your dilligence in researching and presenting this matter.
    But, to me what’s even more appalling, is the lack of compensation.

    The “Native Americans” get casinos and other perks from the US. The Japanese families were reimbursed for the horrors of the concentration camps steming from WW II. Even surviving members of the Hollacaust in the US get tax credits and other perks for something that TOOK PLACE IN EUROPE.

    I am still waiting on my 40 acres and a mule.

    Oh, I forgot about “affirmative action”, wow.

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