“BLACK SKIN, WHITE MASK”
THE MYTH OF THE HOMOGENOUS AFRICAN AMERICAN
JOSEPH E. HOLLOWAY
Some thoughts on caste, color, class and status among African Americans. Franz Fanon dealt with this issue within the context of France and French colonies in French West Africa. For Fanon, being black [African] was to be colonized and dominated physically, emotionally and spiritually by whites, and as a result of this psychological domination, blacks suffered from psychosis and self hatred by hating the vary “blackness” which defined their reality. What it meant to black in Africa was to be colonized by European powers. What it meant to black in America was to be called a “Nigger,” despised, denied civil rights, segregated, Jim Crowed and lynched for crossing the color line.
Fanon believed that blacks adopting the language and culture of the dominate society had larger implication for one’s consciousness: Speaking the language of the colonizers means that one accepts, or is coerced into accepting, the collective consciousness of the person or, which identifies blackness with evil and sin. In an attempt to escape the association of blackness with evil, the black man dons a white mask, or thinks of himself as a universal subject equally participating in a society that advocates and equality supposedly abstracted from personal appearance. Cultural values are internalized, or “epidermalized” into consciousness, creating a fundamental disjuncture between the black man’s consciousness and his body. Under these conditions, the black man is necessarily alienated from himself . . . the category “white” depends for its stability on its negation, “black.” Neither exists without the other, and both come into being at the moment of imperial conquest. That is, the black man’s acceptance of the definition of his humanity by whites. Thus, the black man internalized and perpetuated his own negative self-image, hating everything black including himself.
Likewise, the notion of a homogenous African American group united by a common African ethnicity and culture is a myth. Many scholar failed to recognize the diversity in language, culture, class and color among African Americans, and how those differences provided one group of African Americans with extraordinary opportunities for higher educational and trade skills when compared to the general black population. Historically, there has always been great tension between the “mulatto” and black classes because of the association of “yellow” skin with high status and class within the black social apex. Slave masters exploited these tensions for their obvious benefits, keeping their mulatto children elevated over the African field worker, and African Americans have continue to perpetuated this system of privilege and discrimination based on light skin long after whites stop make any distinction between light and dark skinned blacks after the Plessey Decision of 1896. The root to this disparity is the American plantation during the 17th and 18th century.
During the 17th century the African still lived in a world governed by African traditions and values. By the18th century African Americans on the plantation were as diverse as Euro-Americans emigrating from Europe. There was no collected ethnic or cultural identity among both groups. Both African and European cultures contributed fairly evenly, given the circumstances, to what was to become America. Culturally, Americans shared many experiences–some born in Europe and some in Africa.
The African house servants learned new domestic skills, including the art of quilting, from their mistresses. They took this European quilting technique and Africanized it by combining it with their appliqué style, reflecting a pattern and form still found in the Akan and Fon textile industries of West Africa.
The culture of the Mande had a profound effect on Euro-Americans by way of the “Big House.” It was the planter who witnessed the transmission of European culture to the Africans and African culture to the Europeans. The acculturation process was mutual, as well as reciprocal; Africans assimilated white culture, and planters adopted some aspects of African customs and practices such as the African agricultural method of rice cultivation, African cuisine (southern cooking), open grazing of cattle and use of herbal medicines to cure and treat new World diseases such as smallpox, and African concept of polygamy.
A diversity of Africans, including the Bantu of Central Africa, changed North American culture, contrary to the popular belief that only West Africans contributed. Because West Africans had a great influence on white American culture by their presence in the plantation “Big House.”
Gabriel Prosser the insurrectionist of 1800 organized one of the largest plan slave revolt of its time. Though he was slave, who hires out his time out, he tried to create a movement that was not political and not race based. Instead he believed that the ideas stemming from the American Revolution would be enough to motivate his base which dwelled in the city of Richmond. But his troopers lived in the rural areas isolated from the city. Being strong on the rhetoric of the Revolution, and short on religious and ethnic identification he failed because his movement was without a black “Moses,” and he could not link up the city and country folks. He failed to organized among the various African groups still visible on the plantation. He believed the rhetoric of the Revolution was enough to transform both country and city blacks. The reality check was the city belonged to the “Mulatto,” and the “Countryside” to the African. English was the language of the Mulatto and Gullah was the language of African, and thus because the African and the Mulatto could not communicate in regard to their Affirmative Actions, the movement failed because the periphery and the center could not talk to each other.