My main point is this: Black American identity within the United States emerges from the interaction between structures of oppression — slavery, the slave trade and race hierarchy — and the needs and goals of those enmeshed within them. Slavery bound African captives together into a group; the desire to assert their personhood — to build community, to find respite, to resist — was cause to adopt a common identity. In turn, that common identity gave those individuals and their descendants a foundation from which to challenge the structures that bound them together in the first place. Race hierarchy and racism set in motion a process of group formation and social action, the aim of which was to transcend and overcome racial domination, and racial categorization itself.
Here, precision is important. Black people did not create themselves as “a race.” Race is an ideology, not a biological reality. It arose at a particular time in history, for particular reasons, in an effort to resolve the contradiction of a freedom-loving society that held large parts of its population in bondage. The claim? That the enslaved were a different, lesser form of humanity. It was enslavers who deemed their African captives a “race,” but it was those captives who made themselves into a people. Had things gone differently — if the American Revolution had been emancipatory, for example, with a full commitment to total equality for all people in the new nation — then Black Americans would have remained a people, but might no longer have been a “race.”
Race does not exist in the ether. It must be created and recreated, part of a hierarchical system of domination called racism, itself tied to the production and distribution of resources in our society. The violence and forced peonage of the post-Reconstruction era; the segregation of Jim Crow; the white flight, deindustrialization and the ghettoization of inner cities — all of these things created race.
In other words, it is the reality of racism — the ongoing production of race by institutions and structures of racial domination — that fuels this process of group formation. In his 1940 book, “Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept,” W. E. B. Du Bois captured this dynamic in a single sentence, the final point in an imagined dialogue with a white interlocutor. “The Black man,” he wrote, “is a person who must ride ‘Jim Crow’ in Georgia.”
Bound together by segregation, discrimination and exploitation, Americans of African descent kept building community. And what is crucial to this question of the boundaries of blackness was the sheer rigidity of American race hierarchy. Your exact origins did not matter. Neither, for that matter, did your skin color.
In his autobiography, “A Man Called White,” a former head of the N.A.A.C.P., Walter Francis White, recounts a mob attack on his childhood home. White and his family — his mother was said to be a descendant of President William Henry Harrison and Dilsia, an enslaved woman — had light-complexions, with few visible African features. “My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blond,” wrote White. They were, nonetheless, part of Atlanta’s Black community, tied to it by heritage and history. It was those ties that made them a target, and it was that experience of racial violence that impressed on White his own identity: “In the flickering light the mob swayed, paused, and began to flow toward us. In that instant there opened up within me a great awareness; I knew then who I was. I was a Negro.”