Patrick Manning on the Future of Black Identity

The African Diaspora, Patrick ManningIn the epilogue to The African Diaspora: A History Through Culture, Patrick Manning draws on the history described in his book to explore some key issues, past, present, and future, relating to slavery, racism, reparations, and the advancement of the black community.

In this excerpt from the epilogue, Manning considers the future of black identity, looking at it via recent trends in South America:

In contrast to the unity and linkage of black communities, there are grow­ing divisions within black communities. The recent rise of more black people to positions of influence and wealth means that black communities will necessarily become more heterogeneous. The ideal of maintaining black unity and social cohesion will require, therefore, the creation of new means for establishing common identity across an increasingly wide social and economic range. It may be that the experience and process of sustaining and recreating a common identity across the African diaspora will provide some pointers on how to strengthen a sense of community among humans generally. Or it may be that conflicts within black communities will become more severe.

The previous experiments in defining black identity have run into their limits. The North American approach was to label the hierarchy of society with race at every turn, thereby formally denying black people the opportunity for social advancement. One “drop of black blood” was sufficient to deprive a person of the benefits of being white. The Latin American technique was to avoid labeling the hierarchy with race and thereby ignore the fact that unspoken discrimination was denying black people the opportunity for social progress. An intermediate experiment, particularly in the Caribbean, was to identify the range of colors and to rank the social hierarchy by shades of color. (All of these experiments have been applied, in varying ways, in Africa and in the Old World diaspora as well.)

In this fascinating mix of genetic similarities, cultural overlaps, and arbitrary social distinctions, some South American trends in black identity appear to be of particular interest. There are moves to abandon the region’s old experiment—the ideology of “racial democracy,” which meant ignoring or denying the inequality. The national cultures of Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, and other countries are now recognizing formally both their African ancestry and the heritage of discrimination that goes with it. They are beginning to adjust their history and institutions to acknowledge this new thinking. Or perhaps one should say they are thinking up new ways of stating the relationships among black, brown, and white, since these were the previous Latin American categories. Of course, these changes come not out of the blue but in response to the steady demands and incremental advances of the people of African descent in those countries. The prospect is interesting: perhaps it will be possible to sustain a strong black identity even when differences in race or color are not set in a hierarchy. In addition, perhaps it will be possible to recognize all the “mixes” by which people choose to identify themselves. One need not expect to end social conflict or to eliminate racial difference as a factor in human life, but the next experiments in defining black identity may lead to a substantially new stage.

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