Wednesday, February 01, 2006

"Roots Envy"? Steps to Progress

On the first day of Black History Month I find it appropriate to discuss the February 1 Wall St. Journal (page A14) commentary of Harvard Professor Skip Gates (pictured above), entitled, “My Yiddishe Mama”. For Gates:

“…genealogy seems to [be] a way of staking a claim on a richer American identity, an identity established through individual triumphs like the attainment of literacy and the purchasing of land.”

So, on February 1, I pose the following questions: Does the future of progressive black American identity lie in a more scientific and immediate concept of our individual lineage?

Wouldn’t this offer a deeper and more complete understanding of one’s individual history, creating greater agency in matters particular to America, while still specific to the Negro?

Would this provide a historically displaced people the opportunity to steep themselves in the achievements and experiences of their immediate forebearers?

Why, a concerted focus in self-indulgent – and appropriately termed —“Roots envy” might be just the progressive reflection that Black America needs as it continues to chart its course. Gates seems to agree:

“Contrary to conventional wisdom, and contrary to those who worry about "the geneticization of identity," our sense of identity -- in this case at least -- seems to be more deeply rooted in the histories of family members we can name than in anonymous ancestors emerging out of the dense shadows of an African past, unveiled through a process admittedly still in its infancy.”

While the merits of a more immediate sense of identity are clear to me, I’m curious about your thoughts on the matter.


Anonymous said...

You ask if "Does the future of progressive black American identity lie in a more scientific and immediate concept of our individual lineage?"

There will certainly be more scientific understanding in the future. That much is obvious. Who among us can resist knowing the identities of our 128 ancestors 7 generations back? The impact of this knowledge on a progressive black American identity is trickier. My guess is that we will soon see a dramatic increase in the number of Americans claiming a (partial) black identity, willing to check the "African American" box on, say, a Williams application. This is similar to what has happened with regard to Native Americans over the last few decades.

Dave Kane

Brother Smartness said...

I’m encouraged to answer the question you posed on this post because it has been one of great importance to me. Black Americans are quite diverse when it comes to their understanding of self and lineage. While some are quick to admit that they have no connection to Africa, others eagerly search for those African roots they hope will complete them. In the end, there are achievements and triumphs from the Nile to the Mississippi that all Blacks in America can look to with pride and a sense of belonging. The path to rediscover Africa was tread by pioneers like Marcus Garvey who understood the importance of looking back before stepping forward. It was men like Garvey who looked to Africa when the Americas failed to acknowledge the worth of a human being.

With Africa still recovering from the effects of colonialism, effects which were caused by colonialists and Africans alike, it is important for Black Americans to recognize the impact that they are capable of having across the Atlantic. I fear that Gates’ call will lend to the formation of a chasm far greater than that ocean that already separates us from our brothers and sisters. In that land ridden with disease and war lies the potential for a remarkable revolution of thought and practice. I’m weary of any sense of identity that seeks immediacy in lieu of, rather than along with, the bigger picture.

There are great things happening in the continent of Africa, but there are also some very horrible things. If Black Americans aren’t capable of understanding the connection they have with Africa, the path to true freedom in Africa will be far longer than it has to be.