On The Evolution Of The African American Diaspora

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The main and most obvious reason why the search for an identity and a homeland traditionally represented a vital aspect of African American vernacular and literary tradition was because African Americans were completely robbed of their indigenous vernacular and literary traditions. In such a vacuum, it is a natural human response to begin asking the vital human questions all over again: Who are we? Why are we here? How did we get here? Where are we going?

These are natural human questions, and a large part of human cultural evolution hinges around our search for satisfactory answers. To a great extent, cultures are their collective answers to these questions, whether those cultures exist in developing nations, isolated jungles or the most modern of cities. Despite superficial doctrinal differences, much in the same way that iwapẹlẹ, meditation, and sincere veneration sufficiently strengthened the Yoruba practitioner, Western religious rituals engage in essentially the same search for answers to these questions whether Catholic, Muslim, Protestant, atheist or anything else. To deny people their innate rights of self-discovery is perhaps the pinnacle of cruelty and inhumanity, enforced all the more stringently as black people were uprooted from their families and friends in their own lands, transported thousands of miles away only to be conscripted to nothing less than a living hell.

There is a very real and discernible evolution of the African American diaspora and the rudimentary catalysts of this evolution are found in the early hymns and religious developments. Obviously, the trip through that prebiotic soup called the Atlantic represents the first conditions for a replicator from which this cladogenesis sprung. As far as the African and America are concerned, in the beginning, the white man said, "Let there be slavery," and this fact explains several aspects of African American behavior, some that continue today, others that seem to be fading entirely.

The initial emotions driving the diaspora were fear, anger, doubt and sadness. Some expressed such through inactive passivity, others turned to religion, and still others picked up pens. The writing of the time, expressed in Pyrrhic literary victories like Harriet Wilson's Our Nig and and Harriet Jacobs' Incidents In the Life of a Slave Girl, reflected a horrifically raw and uncensored account of the realities of slavery, and perhaps the most primal and natural human reaction to it: To flee. When faced with clear and present danger, an organism's fight or flight instincts respond, and in the interest of physical, psychological and spiritual self-preservation, new mechanisms of dealing with oppression evolved, and those which were effective were naturally selected. Such set the stage for the revolution that would later culminate in the Civil Rights movement, and continues to express itself today in various manifestations of resistance.

As Nig laments of Mag Smith, "Early deprived of parental guardianship, far removed from relatives, she was left to guide her tiny boat over life's surges alone and inexperienced." In his writings, Frederick Douglass built a similar emotional anchor upon the parental isolation so common with slavery, concluding that its only possible purpose could be, "…to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child." What surer path to the absence of love and something surely less worthy, nay brutal? Harriet Jacobs noted that her father's greatest wish was, "[T]o purchase his children," and although vomit was withheld that thought made me quite physically sick when I first read it. Unfortunately, that many of these people had the audacity to call themselves Christians surely obliterated any real likelihood of the gospel message being accepted. Mrs. Bellmont's utter sickness and overt racism was made manifest by her remark that, "Religion was not meant for niggers," and that statement is so powerfully negative and morally corrupt I wondered if I should even repeat it at all. The severance of the African American's humanity is brought even more forcefully home when we hear Nig wonder if heaven exists for black people, and quite literally, nothing short of a diaspora and the search for a homeland could have resulted from such holistic slavery. Such characterizes the early genesis of this evolution, rough and insultingly humble beginnings.

Yet natural selection is the darn'dest thing, and as years passed, and in classic survival mode, more and more African Americans began to resist their oppression and their oppressors – physically, psychologically, spiritually, and most importantly, intellectually. Bold and courageous men like Frederick Douglass dared to educate themselves and other slaves, on the notion that knowledge is power and does not discriminate on the basis of race, on the notion that nothing in a white man's brain rendered knowledge inscrutable to a black man or anybody else for that matter. In the evolution of the African American diaspora, Abolition is shown to be superficial in part and becomes analogous only to the transition from water to land. At this point, the African American, although ostensibly free, typically did not enjoy equal privileges and from the vantage point of the oppressors, freed slaves still lacked the distinguished features of a human being. Rather, fully-human beings were forced to creep and crawl about as reptilian animals for fear of ignorance and idiocy on behalf of people with guns and power. As such, we cannot argue that Abolition was tantamount to acceptance of the African American as co-equal and co-creator in these things we call America and humanity. Nay, in our evolutionary analogy, the African American has not yet reached even the level of a hominid species.

It is true that time plays a vital role in the evolution of anything, and as even more time passed and the genuine benefits of Abolition began to show the inklings of true cultural progress, the focus shifted from pure physical survival to cultural, spiritual and artistic flourishing, and the establishment of a true and noble equality that manifested in practice, not paper. Alas, skilled predators adapt their behavior as well, and at best, Reconstruction provided only a rudimentary schema for the completion of the evolution of the African American diaspora. Scholarly-inclined, passionate and fearless intellectuals like W. E. B. Dubois who had never been enslaved wrote eloquent and articulate arguments for the equality of the African American intellect, noting, "That sky was bluest when I could beat my mates at examination time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads." Among the first African Americans to receive a Ph.D was Anna Julia Cooper, born into slavery but eventually rising among the most prominent scholars of her time, and who spoke with a poignancy that is still very relevant today. By the time these and many other courageous members in this story had exerted their influence on society, the grip of ignorance and stupidity was even more loosened.

By now in our analogy we are certainly at least mammalian, but as ostensibly free African Americans stormed the cities in hope and the threat of competition became very real, tough challenges to full humanity were still met. The frustrations and aspirations of black people as evidenced by cultural fiats like the Harlem Riot of 1964 and the Harlem Renaissance showed that legislation cannot effect equivalent changes in human hearts and nor did it appear that it could be beaten into anyone. Since evolution is ceaseless, all that could be done was for the evolution of the diaspora to continue.

After fiery and prominent intellectuals like Marcus Garvey and Claude McKay, the Civil Rights movement may reasonably be interpreted as the final round of natural selection which actually took the African American from hominid to human. Artistically-inclined African Americans like Billie Holiday and Nina Simone sung beautifully from the depths of their justified hatred of racism and the mentality that allows one human being to treat another like a subhuman animal. In a similar vein as Dubois and Douglass before him, Claude McKay's line, "Be not deceived, for every deed you do, I could match-out-match," is relevant. Although we note that skilled predators adapt to the adaptations of their prey, and it would be naive to deny that racial prejudice simply changes clothes, such cannot possibly discount or undermine the very real advances and importance of this era.

And here we stand today, on the cusp of a historical first that retains the potential to further erode and weaken the lies upon which hundreds of years of inhumanity were founded. Whereas before, African Americans had good ground to deny America any pretense of being a suitable homeland, today that situation is not the same. America can be, and always should have been, a place African American people should be rightful participants and equal co-creators in.

It was Albert Einstein who said, "Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe." That the African American diaspora is reaching the final stages of its evolution is not an argument that racism doesn't still exist in America. It would be perilously naive to deny how de licate the current optimism is, and how very easily it could all be turned awry. As Einstein notes, people are people and there's plenty of baggage left around from previous centuries, but especially with the election of President-elect Barrack Obama, the evolution of the African American diaspora is being made complete right before our very eyes. So often there is a correlation between progress and youth, and the situation with racism seems to bear this out. Older ancestors and the pain they stored have begun to pass, and the acceptance of younger generations gain more and more ground in our various cultural epicenters.

Viewing the evolution of the African American diaspora as nearing completion is a radical enough concept that I suspect only the most progressive of minds may be able to comprehend it, but what good reason is there for an African American today to continue in acceptance of the lies foisted upon their ancestors hundreds of years ago, lies that told them they were not rightful participants and equal co-creators in these things we call America and life?

To return to Anna Julia Cooper, "And here let me say parenthetically that our satisfaction in American institutions rests not on the fruition we now enjoy, but springs rather from the possibilities and promise that are inherent in the system."

Is it possible to move beyond the stupidity and ignorance that causes such tragedy and divide? I concur that yes we can, that the savannahs of Africa are home to us all, that the awe-inspiring evolution of the African American diaspora is made complete in proportion to those who realize the brute fact of equality, and on that note, may all oppressed take heed of the thousands of valuable lessons paid for in the blood of the African people, to rise up and possess what is rightfully all of ours – that is to say, humanity.

One comment

  1. lexi


    I really enjoyed reading your essay. I thought it was beautifully written, and highlighted all of the amazing and talented people that came out of such tragic times. Although, it was such an awful and hateful time, we can all learn from the bravery and strength that the African people had, and how they turned so many many negatives into positives. “knowledge is power and does not discriminate on the basis of race”…I really enjoyed this quote, because in so many ways knowledge was one of the only things that didn’t judge the African people, and cannot be taken away from you once instilled. The hardships and plain out evil that was endured by these people is something no body should ever have to go through, and since they did, this shows such an extraordinary kind of strength that we all should look up to.

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