Understanding The Black Experience in America

Understanding The Black Experience in America

Maafa and the Loss of Identity

One of the disturbing aspects of the black experience in America is the loss of black identity and culture patterned across time. Maafa, or the African Holocaust, defines the reasons for this pattern which are more complex than one might believe. Groups such as Italians, that immigrated to the US, after one or two generations are assimilated into the dominant white culture. Because of slavery, African Americans were not immigrants and did not have the same ability to be assimilated. Even after slavery, assimilation into the American culture was mired in racism both socially and legally. As a result of this lack of social process black people in the US are neither assimilated nor are they distinct. For example, groups such as Chinese Americans often live in enclaves and maintain their culture and identity as a people. African Americans are neither African nor are they American in the truest sense of the word despite the fact that they maintain many of the same religions, customs, and beliefs of the white majority. While African Americans have carved out their distinct culture this culture still fights for acceptance due to the ongoing effects of Maafa.

According to Maulana Karenga, the “destruction of human possibility involved redefining African humanity to the world, poisoning past, present and future relations with others who only know us through this stereotyping and thus damaging the truly human relations among peoples” (Epps, 2012). Within this framework, slavery destroyed identity among those blacks who were taken and subsequent generations. Along with legal and social disenfranchisement, Maafa stripped blacks from their culture and identity. As a result of this loss of culture, there is an ongoing psychological problem associated with Maafa in which blacks continuously attempt to reassert, establish, or discover their identity, only to find that these attempts end in futility due to the fact that Maafa has an erosive impact on black tradition and culture. The evidence of this pattern can be seen in the difficulty of black cultural movements to take hold within the US.

Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance was a movement in the 1920’s and 30’s of African American culture blossoming, particularly in the creative arts. The impact of historical perspective on literature produced during the Harlem Renaissance is evident when analyzing what influenced the authors, particularly several social, cultural, and artistic trends in the decades before. African American social movement, primitivism in art, and cultural separation of America from Europe all had an influence on the literature produced by African American authors of the Harlem Renaissance.

As African American education and literacy rates rose dramatically in the early 20th century, many began to push for more socioeconomic opportunities and recognition from the white society of what it really means to be African American instead of the stereotypes developed during slavery. During this time of cultural awakening, African American writers were not unified in artistic aims or even methods, accounting for the cultural importance of the Renaissance. One of the few overarching aspects of the Harlem Renaissance that encompassed the variety of opinions and goals of its participants is that the authors and artists of the Harlem Renaissance “sought to reconceptualize ‘the Negro’ apart from the white stereotypes that had influenced black peoples’ relationship to their heritage and to each other” (Harlem Renaissance, 2012). Nearly all of the literature produced during the Harlem Renaissance aimed to take back the African American story. With this aim came an additional desire of African Americans to break free of Victorian moral values and bourgeois shame about aspects of their lives that might, as seen by whites, reinforce racist beliefs. The unity of the movement forged from an amazing variety of opinions, goals, methods, literature, music, art, and more that sprung from this overarching desire to take back the African American story and truly defined the Harlem Renaissance. For example, some Harlem Renaissance authors and artists turned increasingly to African and slave aesthetic forms for expression while others co-opted European literary styles and traditions for their own expression. The variety of opinion, style, and themes present in the literature of the Harlem Renaissance can be attributed to several historical trends that occurred in the early 20th century” (Harlem Renaissance, 2012).

The parallel to literature produced at the time is that no one school of thought dominated the movement; rather, the high concentration of talent and intellect fueled an intense, yet respectful, social debate that gave the movement its momentum. For example, Claude McKay published Home to Harlem in 1928, a seminal piece of literature of the Harlem Renaissance that depicted the transnational black Harlem, the energetic nightlife, and the spirit of the uprooted black vagabond. W.E.B. DuBois, however, criticized the novel’s frank depictions of the nightlife and of sexuality as only appealing to white readers who are constrained by conventional civilization from participating in it themselves (Lowney, 2000). The harsh criticism of one Harlem Renaissance author towards another were not uncommon, forming many of the debates that occurred within the movement and propelled it forwards due to a plethora of motivations. While W.E.B. DuBois was interested in using the art and literature of the Harlem Renaissance as propaganda to uplift African Americans towards political liberation, Claude McKay's motivations were to present a distinctive black identity by showcasing the common man and the many truths about the lives of African Americans living in Harlem.

Due to primitivism, some of the Harlem Renaissance participants made it a point to turn increasingly to specifically “Negro” aesthetic forms as a basis for innovation and self-expression. As mentioned before, this trend was neither a unifying aspect of all participants of the Renaissance nor did it clash with the motivations of other participants; it was just one of many sources for African American self-expression that defined the literature of the Harlem Renaissance. Countee Cullen, a poet of the Harlem Renaissance, believed instead that great poetry must transcend racial identity (Adam, 2012). His poems “Heritage”, “Incident”, and “From the Dark Tower” all discuss the racial subject matter, however, Cullen felt that the tradition of English poetry was a more important resource than any supposed racial heritage. In contrast, Langston Hughes, another poet of the Harlem Renaissance, announced in his manifesto The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain (1926) that black poets should create a distinctive “Negro” art and combat the “urge within the race toward whiteness” by not utilizing the European traditional styles of poetry, writing, and art (Hughes, 1926). Langston Hughes and other writers of the Harem Renaissance were impacted by the trend towards primitivism, finding their source for motivation and inspiration in their racial heritage.

African American intellectuals asserted their relationship to the new American identity was any expressive traditions thought to be unique to America had in fact been developed by African Americans, a group that had been forced to remake themselves in the New World while whites had continued to look to and follow Europe. For example, as jazz began to find popularity around the world as American music, it was in fact black American music. The ownership of identity was a very important cultural trend in the world at the beginning of the 20th century that impacted African American literature on their quest to retake the African American story from white stereotyping. Within this quest were also individualized quests for identifying and expressing personal identities aside from that of being African American. Nella Larsen was a significant Harlem Renaissance novelist who drew from her own identity as a mixed race woman to explore racial psychology, class, and sexuality. Born to a white mother and a black father, Larsen knew and exposed the contradictions of identities that are founded on society’s assertion that there is an absolute difference between “white” and “black” (Davis, 1996). Additionally, she was able to express and expose the views of what is allowable for, or expected from, a woman sexually when subordinated to society’s rules of race and class. Many women authors of the Harlem Renaissance were not only attempting to take back authority over telling the African American story but also take back the authority as women to contradict stereotypes dictating the uptight white woman compared to the overtly sexual, primal nature of the black woman.

At the very core of the Harlem Renaissance was self-expression by African Americans in a way that they had not been able to achieve before in the Western world. The themes, styles, opinions, and purposes of many of the works varied based on their personal experiences, gender, class, rural upbringing versus urban upbringing, travels, and view of race, be it their own or others. The literature of the Harlem Renaissance was impacted by the historical perspective of where African Americans were in society at the beginning of the 20th century compared to only a few decades prior, strongly motivating the participants to reclaim authority over telling the African American story freely in a way like never before.

Despite this vast and influential period of art and literature, the African Identity or Black Identity did not find clarity. While the literature and art of the Harlem Renaissance marked a turning point in black cultural history by helping to establish the authority of African American writers and artists over the representation of African American culture and experience, it only formed a segment of an emerging black identity.

African vs Black

In the late 80s and 1990s, the terminology African American began becoming increasingly more popularized in American vernacular. Many leaders such as Jesse Jackson would grasp this concept in an attempt to provide identity to blacks within America. But rather than being a uniting force for culture the concept of African Americans became a division and point of contention because of the ambiguities attached with this concept. In the 2000 election campaign this contention came to light when Alan Keyes and Barrack Obama argued over this problem:

During the campaign, the debate spilled into public view when Alan Keyes, the black Republican challenger for the Senate seat in Illinois, questioned whether Mr. Obama, … should claim an African-American identity. “Barack Obama claims an African-American heritage,” Keyes said on the ABC program “This Week”. “Barack Obama and I have the same race that is, physical characteristics. We are not from the same heritage.” “My ancestors toiled in slavery in this country,” Mr. Keyes said. “My consciousness, who I am as a person, has been shaped by my struggle, deeply emotional and deeply painful, with the reality of that heritage.” (African American Registry, 2015)

Mr. Keyes and Mr. Obama, at the time, highlighted the much larger problem of clarifying African American Identity. In the early 90s, blacks took up the cause of African Identity which can be seen in the Million Man March, African art and clothing that were being popularized. Key figures such as Oprah Winfrey who promoted African American literature were central in this movement to claiming African American identity. This period culminated in the Presidency of Barack Obama in 2008. However, the problems of identifying African American culture and identity remained which seems to always lead back to slavery and the ongoing impacts of Maafa which stripped culture and identity.


In the absence of other rational reasons, one must conclude that there is some underlying force that permeates African American society which makes the culture and identity difficult to identify. Maafa and the ongoing effects of systemic racism create the only possible reasons for African Americans who remain disenfranchised culturally compared with other groups in the US. The African Diaspora and the experiences of marginalization, Maafa, and discrimination show the vast difference between people of other groups such as Italian Americans who can tap into a long history and identity. While there is definitely a shared concept of blackness and identity which permeates all people of the black race the formation of culture and identity continues to emerge in America.


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African American Registry (2015) African American, (the term) A Brief History Retrieved from

Davis, Thadious M. (1996) Nella Larsen, Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance: A Woman’s Life Unveiled. LSU Press.

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Hutchinson, George. The Harlem renaissance in black and white. Belknap Press, 1995.

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McKay, Claude.(1928) Home to Harlem. Upne Random

Photo by Caique Silva on Unsplash


Triola Vincent. Sat, Jan 02, 2021. Understanding The Black Experience in America Retrieved from

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