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Black Consciousness - ORIGINS AND DEVELOPMENT, CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT

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Black consciousness is a broad category that encompasses things as varied as race consciousness, race relations, black pride, black power, and even rebellion and revolutionary consciousness as it relates to a historically oppressed community, nation, or group acting and reacting against its oppression. The scholar, Dorscine Spigner-Littles, an elder from Oklahoma who lived through the civil rights era, defined black consciousness as “being aware of the history of your people and understanding your place within it; maintaining the same level of commitment that your ancestors brought but realizing also that you are not blazing new trails but are simply carrying on a tradition with a long past.” Changa Masamakali, a young male hip-hop generation activist, described it as “a framework of thoughts that pushes you to action which is defined in a black nationalist or Pan-African way.” Although it began in all instances as a reaction to forces such as white supremacy, slavery, colonization, and/or social and economic oppression, in the process of developing black consciousness became a force in itself that compelled the group or community to look deeply within itself and seek out a self-definition rooted within its own history and culture and not simply its oppression.

A group or community’s development of black consciousness is frequently characterized by several specific realizations and actions. The prerequisite is recognition on the part of a downtrodden people that they are trapped in an oppressive system that depends for its own survival on their racial, economic, political, social, and often cultural exploitation. Coming to consciousness within such a system involves an awareness that strategies of survival must come from within the oppressed community. At such a point, the group has to remember the long tradition of survival and resistance that has been a part of the life of both Africans on the continent and their descendants all over the world for several hundred years. A deep understanding of the particular history of struggle that the people or group has gone through is also crucial to the evolution of its consciousness at this stage. How deeply it takes root and how long-lasting this consciousness becomes depends on the group or nation’s self-love and belief in the power of its culture to renew itself. The life span of this consciousness also depends on the group’s ability to internalize and transmit this new sense of itself to its descendants and the community at large. The evolution of black consciousness has taken different forms in the United States, South Africa, and Brazil.

ORIGINS AND DEVELOPMENT

Within the United States, black consciousness on the most basic level originated in the resistance to slavery. Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829), by David Walker (1785–1830), functioned as a black nationalist counterpoint, written by a free black, to the more integration-oriented rhetoric of Frederick Douglass. Reacting to the brutality and violence of the transatlantic slave trade and the institution of New World slavery, he writes, “The whites have always been an unjust, jealous, unmerciful, avaricious and blood-thirsty set of beings, always seeking after power and authority” (p. 16). The scholar Sterling Stuckey states that for Walker, “the essence of European character was … a desire for power linked to an insatiable love of gain…. Walker’s cry was at bottom one of hatred of the spirit of capitalism as well as of slavery and racism” (1987, p. 121). Walker went to an early grave, dying of a suspected poisoning, but his rhetoric laid the foundation for a radical tradition of resistance within the United States.

Following Walker, Martin Robinson Delany (1812–1885), abolitionist, doctor, and soldier, could be seen making the notion of black consciousness more of a reality than it was in Walker’s lifetime. He wrote The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered , after he and several black students were dismissed from Harvard medical school due to the protests of white students who objected to integrated education. His book argued that there was no future for black people in the United States, and emigration to Africa was a more desirable alternative. His novel, Blake: Or the Huts of America , imagined as part of its plot, resistance and rebellion to the system of slavery. The novel was also conceived of as a response to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin , which Delany thought depicted blacks too passively.

Delany traveled to West Africa in 1859 and apparently negotiated with several African chiefs, garnering permission for a new settlement of formerly enslaved Africans to occur in exchange for their contributing to the community’s overall development. Although this venture never came to fruition, for twenty years on and off Delany remained interested in making emigration to Liberia a reality. In the meantime, he was instrumental in recruiting black men to fight on the side of the North in the Civil War, assisting black cotton farmers in improving their business, working for the Freedman’s Bureau, and running for political office. In 1877 the Liberia Exodus Joint Stock Steamship Company was formed and Martin Delany was chairman of the finance committee. This particular venture was a precursor to, and may have laid the foundation for Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line ships and his widespread Pan-African movement to follow. Delany died of consumption in 1885.

Following in David Walker and Martin Delany’s footsteps, Marcus Garvey (1887–1940), born in Jamaica two years after Delany’s death, is probably the most significant single individual in terms of the promotion of black consciousness on a worldwide scale. His organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), began and flowered in the United States but had chapters throughout the black world. The scholar Horace Campbell states:

Garveyism brought together diverse working people, independent trade unionists, pacifists, cultural nationalists, women liberation fighters, militant self-help groups, socialists, members of church organizations and a whole host of unorganized black folk…. Garveyism used the propaganda … available at that time to give meaning to the claim that the UNIA spoke for the liberation of all blacks and for the liberation of the African continent…. On the specific question of the liberation of Africa … it was instilled in the minds of the Africans in the West that their freedom was inextricably bound up with the freedom of the African continent. (1988, p. 173)

More than any movement before it, the Garvey movement made black consciousness more of a concrete reality for black folks dispersed throughout the West. It laid the foundation for the Rastafari movement in Jamaica, and, as Campbell further states, “South Africa at this time was an area of intense capitalist penetration … It is therefore not accidental that the UNIA took deeper roots in that society than elsewhere on the continent [of Africa]” (1988, p. 173).

In South Africa nineteenth-century Ethiopianism, which was a fusion of spirituality and black consciousness, had spawned several independent black churches throughout southern Africa and helped to lay a foundation that was receptive to Garvey’s message. What seemed to have particularly struck the consciousness of the South African masses was the slogan, “Africa for Africans,” and the idea of the UNIA’s Black Star Line fleet of ships as a naval battalion transporting black Americans ready to fight Europeans and liberate oppressed Africans. Robert Hill and Gregory Pirio describe this period:

The recurrent myth of imminent black liberation from America was clearly an active feature in the South African arena of struggle, on the eve of the black mine-workers’ strike of 1920. A native identified only as “Mgoja of Johannesburg” took the floor at a meeting of the Transvaal Native Congress, at Boksburg, on 8 February, a few days before the strike began, stat[ing] that … “the Congress members who were sent to Europe are on their way to America and that they will get satisfaction there, America said they will free all natives, and they will help. That America had a black fleet and it is coming .” (1987, p. 211)

Apparently, many rural native South Africans at the time held the view that “all Americans were Negroes—who would drive the whites of South Africa into the sea” (Hill and Pirio 1987, p. 227). However, at that time the South African state “viewed all Afro-Americans as agents of racial consciousness who were bent on contaminating the African natives with visionary and disruptive ideas” (Hill and Pirio 1987, p. 225). Rural native South Africans—for whom this mode of independent resistance to the state, unconnected to any spiritual directive, was new—apparently viewed even the local leaders of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of South Africa (ICU) (a black, nationally founded organization) as “ambassadors of Marcus Garvey…and American Negroes who had come to deliver them from slavery … The image of the ‘American Negro’ ha[d] come to symbolize a radical black consciousness … [This was reinforced by the] multitude of organizational and political linkages between the ICU and UNIA and their respective leaders in Cape Town” (Hill and Pirio 1987, pp. 215–216).

Garvey’s influence in South Africa provoked a backlash on a variety of levels. On March 12, 1921, the Umteteli wa Bantu , the newspaper of the Chamber mines, stated that “the American Negro is a force to reckon with—a force which may well affect the destiny of South Africa through its effect upon South Africa’s black population” (Hill and Pirio 1987, p. 214). Further, heads of state who had previously claimed to dismiss the power of Garveyism expressed great national anxiety when Garvey announced that he intended to visit Africa. Despite conflicting views and reactions to the influence of Garveyism in South Africa, the movement is still credited with shifting popular black focus away from the belief that benevolent British rule was better than Dutch rule and toward the concept of black self-rule. Garveyism set off a chain reaction in the United States, and research shows that figures such as Malcolm X and former Black Panther Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt, among others, were the product of parents who were members of the UNIA.

CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT

In the United States in the 1950s and early 1960s, the lynching of Emmett Till (1955) and the struggles faced by activists within the Civil Rights movement created the conditions for the ideological shift toward black power, black consciousness, and black nationalism. Between 1963 and 1966 several events turned the tide of consciousness. Severe confrontations arose involving civil rights marchers, police dogs, and white mobs; Malcolm X was assassinated; the racism of white activists within the movement created tension over the formation of a new nonracial society; and the Johnson administration made it clear that racial progress would be slow at best and nonexistent at worst when, at the 1964 Democratic Convention, the delegates from the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party were treated by and large as the representatives of the citizens of Mississippi as opposed to those people who were members of the movement-inspired Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

This series of events, among other events, spawned recognition within the Civil Rights movement that America was not a democracy and that, despite rhetoric to the contrary, corporate values superceded human rights. Writing about Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and the movement as a whole, the scholar Grace Lee Boggs sharply summarizes and quantifies the implications of these transformations:

King’s great contribution to the movement was the clarity with which he stated his goal and the consistency with which he pursued his strategy. His goal was integration but his strategy was confrontation , and in the actual struggle the first was turned into its opposite by the second. The strategy of confrontation, or disciplined demonstrations in search of reform, systematically exposed both the pitiful inadequacy of the reforms and the bestiality of the whites with whom the demonstrators were seeking to integrate. Thus, while King’s professed aim was civil rights legislation and integration, the means of confrontation taught black people that all the civil rights legislation in the world could not solve their real grievances and led them to question whether, after all, whites were good enough to integrate with. As the saying goes, “Why fight to get into a burning house?” or “Why integrate with cancer?” … King did not draw the dialectical conclusion of his movement. This was the historical contribution of young blacks in SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] who pursued his strategy in every state of the South. Thus in 1966 the movement arrived in practice, before the eyes of the whole nation, at the concept of the struggle for black Power which Malcolm had been developing before black audiences in the North since his break with the Muslims. (1970, p. 213)

As Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Toure, or Ture) stated in the documentary Eyes on the Prize , SNCC workers were made to realize that the issue of morality on which the civil rights movement was based was in reality an issue of power. The SNCC workers had seen raw terror, and they realized that the political, social, and economic system of governance in the United States might in fact have no moral center; but it would not hesitate to continue to exert its raw power against the demonstrators, while allowing whites with implicitly more social and economic power to continue to oppress blacks without consequence. These events provoked a collective turn inward—a reassessment of the nature of the black self within American society. This was the moment when the U.S. black population began to seek a definition that was not simply based on fitting into mainstream society or reacting against it. This consciousness fueled the concrete development of black nationalist organizations as well as an inner transformation within the population resulting in a rebirth of black pride and an interest in African culture and style. Out of this era of black consciousness emerged iconic and internationally known black figures such as James Brown and Muhammad Ali.

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