The Elements Of African American Identity

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The African-American experience in this country has long been a source of controversy. From the pre-slavery days in Africa to the current racial climate. While racism seemed to take a backseat, and was only thought to be a belief held by “backwoods rednecks,” we see that is not the case. Many of us have known that racism was around but in a more covert fashion, such as unfair lending practices, unfair hiring practices, and encounters with the police, just to name a few. This current presidential administration has fostered a resurgence of overt racism with their dog whistle statement “Make America Great Again.” I will be covering four time periods of the African-American experience; the pre-slavery era, the slavery era, Civil War and Reconstruction, and from Reconstruction to the present.

The life of Africans prior to slavery was very much like their European counterparts that captured them. There were Africans that lived in great cities, on the countryside, that were rich and poor. Some lived in peace and others waged war. Life as an African was what you would expect from any human beings at the time. Africa is not one big country, but it is a large continent made up of different countries and cultures. Africans before captivity enjoyed many freedoms and Africa’s riches is what brought Europeans to Africa. The gold, diamond and oil was a huge reason that many showed up on the shores of the motherland. Africans were separated from their loved ones, often without the ability to say goodbye and placed into the bottoms of ships for a journey known as The Middle Passage, on a journey to the unknown.

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African-Americans during slavery was a very dark period for the African-American. All of our rights and dignities were stripped, and we were nothing more than property. The first slave colony was established in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. Thus, beginning the African-American experience. Slaves were used as free labor on tobacco, and cotton farms in the southern colonies. A fledgling nation that did not have much money for industry built its wealth on the back of slave labor. The African experience in America was not much better than the middle passage. Families were split, and treatment for minor “infractions” was harsh and severe. Africans basic instinct to start families and build communities was not allowed. Often male children would be sold when they came of age and female slaves would become concubines to white slave masters, some even as young as 13 years of age. Even though slaves outnumbered their masters, the psychological damage done by the bullwhip had rendered many docile. Slave masters also used house slaves versus field slaves. There was division sewn so that there could not be a planned uprising, or even escape. The slave masters would take light skinned blacks to work in the house. This would give them more access to the family and therefore they felt more empowered. They would use this dynamic to have the lighter house slaves to give them information regarding the field slaves. This dynamic still exists today, as light skinned blacks are thought to be more docile and weaker than dark skinned blacks. The terrors and scars of slavery are still prevalent in current mind sets in America.

The Civil War and Reconstruction era was seen by blacks as an opportunity to be considered human. There was even an all-black regiment out of Massachusetts that fought valiantly at Fort Sumter, and had an Academy Award winning movie made about it. There was a mass exodus of blacks from the south. Many seeking the opportunities and freedoms of the North. They thought that they would be leaving the racism in the south as they migrated north of the Mason-Dixon. This hope proved to be short lived, as the slaves freed by the Emancipation Proclamation and solidified by the 13th Amendment found that living free amongst hostile whites was not an ideal situation either. Although blacks were given the right to vote and to participate in the American experience, there soon grew a fierce opposition. Many local and state laws were enacted that prevented African-Americans from exercising that freedom. The Ku Klux Klan arose from the ashes of the burned and defeated south to wreak havoc upon the black population. This created a new nightmare. While technically free, our ancestors could not exercise said freedom without fear of repercussions.

This led directly into the Jim Crow era. This era was marked by overt racism and laws enacted that kept blacks from exercising freedom. Lynching, murder, and beatings were tools used to keep the black population subservient. After many years of second class treatment the civil rights movement arose. Leaders such as Garvey, Malcolm, Martin, Huey P. Newton, Medgar Evers, and Eldridge Cleaver lent voice to our plight. They publicly stated that racism will not be tolerated and we will band together to show our strength in numbers. We will not eat your food, shop in your stores, ride your buses, and we will defend ourselves and our property from your violence. This marked a change in America. Our voices were starting to be heard. After many high-profile marches and even some televised clashes where the American people got to see how African-Americans were treated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted, which made it illegal to discriminate based on color, gender, race, religion or country of origin. Even though this law was enacted there is still a long way to go in this country. The election of our first black president in 2008 was a step forward, but the election of Donald Trump this past November shows that most of white America is not ready for change. Race related incidents are on the rise and again shows us that we as a people must remain vigilant to ensure that the freedoms that we have are not infringed upon. The freedoms that African-Americans have only enjoyed for 53 years of this country’s long history.


  1. America's Black Holocaust Museum. (2012). Retrieved from
  2. African American Odyssey. (2017). Retrieved from
  3. Slavery in America. (2009). Retrieved from
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