Professor discusses black identity

By Ava Ginsberg


The notion that black identity stems from the Middle Passage is an idea that too narrowly defines the black experience and identity, said an author and professor Tuesday night.

Michelle Wright, associate professor of African-American Studies at Northwestern University and author of “Becoming Black: Creating Identity in the African Diaspora” gave the 24th annual Black Experiences Lecture that focused on black identity in America.

Referencing many acclaimed books and authors, like W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Gilroy and Henry Louis Gates, Wright said that many black writers have only discussed Africa as something of the past and have created the “notion that black is an object of history.”

According to Wright, the Middle Passage narrative, a reference to the passage of slaves from Africa to the Americas, is the widely accepted and one-dimensional characterization of blackness most Americans have today. Wright said that this concept too narrowly defines the black experience and identity.

There is a “notion that African Americans originate in the Middle Passage, and that is where [black] identity begins to form,” Wright said. “[There is a] general understanding and agreement that it is slavery that produces the ‘Black America.’”

The identity of “Black America” is extremely relevant today with the election of the Barack Obama and the constant discourse over his “blackness.”

Wright identified World War II as a better period to use to understand the formation of black identity. Wright affirmed that we should not understand World War II as the origin of blackness but understand it as a “mediating moment” in the creation of a black identity.

“We do not need to lose the Middle Passage,” Wright said. We can also start asking other questions like “what happened to black women during this time?”

“Slavery need not be the immediate touchstone” when contemplating black history and identity, Wright said. Since 1970, more Africans have arrived in the U.S. than ever arrived during the Middle Passage.

Wright spoke about the current media discourse over how Americans “read Barack Obama and his blackness.”

Obama is “exceptionally adept at picking up the fact that there are different types of blackness,” Wright said. He “separates himself from Black Americans” through the Middle Passage. His disconnect from the typical “black identity” of slavery, oppression and the Civil Rights Movement partly explains why he has achieved success as the first African American president in a white America.

“This concept of the ‘Middle Passage’ has been as empowering and as limiting as the Jewish emphasis on the Holocaust,” said Michael Drexler, associate professor of English.

“I think that one of the great lessons of the talk is the idea of the post-WWII transformation of the black identity,” he said. “White Americans have a very static view of blackness.”

Wright’s lecture, though mainly focused on black identity, also discussed the formation of identity in general, and how much of it is defined by history.

“We are so insistent in wanting the other person to see our history, to understand our identity but we will never change history to see others’ identity,” Wright said.

Students who attended expressed interest in Wright’s ideas about the history of black identity but wished that she would have devoted more discussion to the present and future.

“I found Wright’s talk thought-provoking, but it seemed that her discourse ended where I thought it would begin. She spent the majority of the time explaining the centrality of the Middle Passage narrative to the African-American identity and the importance in acknowledging alternative constructions of ‘blackness,'” Meg Erkoboni ’11 said. “This was an interesting and necessary launch point, but I thought she would explore more into present/future.”

Other students enjoyed Wright’s explanation of the origins of black identity. “I really enjoyed her discussion of how as a society even today, we are unable to comprehend how our historical identity as Americans can be rooted in the original democratic ideals of the Founding Father’s and at the same time have such negative connotations with the enslavement of Africans through the Middle Passage.”

Wright ended with a strong and contemplative question about the complexity of black identity: “So, what does it mean to be an African-America or a Black America today?”

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