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Imagining Black America

Imagining Black America

Michael Wayne
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    Imagining Black America
    Book Description:

    Scientific research has now established that race should be understood as a social construct, not a true biological division of humanity. InImagining Black America, Michael Wayne explores the construction and reconstruction of black America from the arrival of the first Africans in Jamestown in 1619 to Barack Obama's reelection. Races have to be imagined into existence and constantly reimagined as circumstances change, Wayne argues, and as a consequence the boundaries of black America have historically been contested terrain. He discusses the emergence in the nineteenth century-and the erosion, during the past two decades-of the notorious "one-drop rule." He shows how significant periods of social transformation-emancipation, the Great Migration, the rise of the urban ghetto, and the Civil Rights Movement-raised major questions for black Americans about the defining characteristics of their racial community. And he explores how factors such as class, age, and gender have influenced perceptions of what it means to be black.Wayne also considers how slavery and its legacy have defined freedom in the United States. Black Americans, he argues, because of their deep commitment to the promise of freedom and the ideals articulated by the Founding Fathers, became and remain quintessential Americans-the "incarnation of America," in the words of the civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-20687-6
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. A Personal Introduction
    (pp. ix-xiv)

    This is a study about nation and race in the making of identity. Or to be precise: a study about nation and race in the making of theascribed public identityand theself-identityof Americans of African descent. And to be more precise still: a study about nation and race in the making of theascribed public identityand theself-identityof Americans withgreater or lesser degreesof African descent. It is based, overwhelmingly, on investigations by other scholars. But the course I chart is an independent one, designed to invite new ways of thinking about the meaning...

  4. A Word about Race
    (pp. xv-xviii)

    To begin with, some basic biology. Human beings share fully 99.5 percent of our DNA. In other words, the individual differences between us—in height and weight, in skin color, in hair texture—are shaped by a mere 0.5 percent of our genetic material. In 1972, the evolutionary geneticist Richard Lewontin examined data on blood groups and proteins to determine how that 0.5 percent was distributed across populations. He looked at local entities such as tribes; at races, as they were commonly defined at the time; and at groups intermediate between the two. He found that, on average, a mere...

  5. Part 1 Colonial Origins

    • 1 Birth of a Race
      (pp. 3-20)

      If “black” is a term devoid of biological meaning, then how are we to understand race? Scholars in recent decades have labeled it a “myth,” a “fiction,” an “invention,” an “illusion,” a “delusion,” a “chimera,” and, sardonically, a “four-letter word.” Most commonly, though, they refer to it as a “social construct.” Indeed, it has become almost obligatory for anyone writing on the history of American race relations to include a statement acknowledging that racial categories are shaped by social context, above all the distribution of power and privilege in society. Logically, then, we should expect racial classification to be unstable,...

  6. Part 2 From the Revolution to the Dawn of the Civil Rights Era

    • 2 On Immigration, Citizenship, and Being “Not-Black”
      (pp. 23-49)

      The United States was the first nation in human history conceived in white supremacy. The delegates who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to write the Constitution did not recognize Native Americans as candidates for citizenship. And one of the first pieces of legislation enacted during George Washington’s first term as president was a law providing, in part, that “any alien, being a free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen thereof.” This stipulation, which effectively restricted naturalization...

    • 3 The Negro, “Incarnation of America”
      (pp. 50-78)

      From the founding of the United States to the dawn of the Civil Rights Era, Americans of African ancestry lived in a nation committed to white supremacy. It was a nation, as well, in which those citizens and immigrants who could not claim the benefits conferred by “whiteness” were at least able to gain certain privileges and a measure of protection by asserting their social distance from those whose skin color marked them as slaves or the descendants of slaves. Under the circumstances, it is more than noteworthy that during those years—a span of almost two centuries—black Americans...

    • 4 Color and Class
      (pp. 79-106)

      During the colonial period, authorities identified “mulattoes” and “Negroes” as members of separate biological categories but legislated them into a single social caste. The belief that mulattoes represented a distinct biological community continued to find expression in government records through the nineteenth century and into the early decades of the twentieth century. In every census but one between 1840 and 1920, enumerators were under instructions to enter the race of each individual and to distinguish between “mulattoes” and “blacks.” It was not until 1930 that the U.S. Census Bureau adopted the “one-drop-rule”: “A person of mixed white and Negro blood...

  7. Part 3 Beyond Civil Rights

    • 5 The Civil Rights Movement
      (pp. 109-117)

      To Americans who have come of age since the 1950s, it is more recognizable than the Gettysburg Address. Its cadences, its poetic invocations, are as familiar as its inspiring message.

      I have a dream,

      proclaimed Martin Luther King, Jr.

      It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

      And moments later:

      I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in...

    • 6 Black Power
      (pp. 118-135)

      In August 1965, just five days after Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, rioting exploded in Watts, a Los Angeles ghetto with a population of 250,000. It was the first of nearly three hundred urban “race riots” and disturbances that shook America over the course of four summers. An estimated 500,000 blacks participated in the burning and looting. By the end of 1968, no fewer than 250 had lost their lives, more than eight thousand had been wounded, and about fifty thousand had been arrested.¹

      The riots occurred at a time of profound change in the public...

    • 7 Black Americans: A Changing Demographic
      (pp. 136-144)

      Social scientists commonly treat the black population of the United States, roughly 40 million in 2010, as a single unit for purposes of statistical analysis. And so we learn that “white families are typically five times as wealthy as black families.” We learn that the unemployment rate has consistently been almost twice as high for blacks as for whites. That the median family income for blacks in 2007, at $42,000, was at least $21,000 less than the median family income for whites. That 34 percent of black children in 2007 lived in households below the poverty line compared with 14...

    • 8 The “Truly Disadvantaged”
      (pp. 145-170)

      At times of profound social change—following Emancipation, for example, or during the Great Migration—Americans of African descent have found themselves challenged to reimagine themselves: to reimagine the defining characteristics of their community, reimagine its boundaries. Since the Civil Rights Era, the distance between the upper echelons of the middle class and those inner-city residents the sociologist William Julius Wilson has called the “truly disadvantaged”—and here I mean both the social and geographic distance—has expanded dramatically. Looking more closely at these two extremes of the social hierarchy will help illuminate the questions that black Americans face as...

    • 9 The “Privileged Class”
      (pp. 171-195)

      “We were looking forward to meeting our friends for dinner,” writes the actor and social commentator Joseph Phillips. “We chose a nice, intimate Italian place, just right for doing a lot of catching up. During the evening’s conversation, our friend’s wife broached the topic of equal opportunity. According to our friends who are black and quite wealthy, there is no such thing. For black folks, the deck is stacked. If you have never experienced it, there is nothing quite as bizarre as millionaires sitting around, sipping Merlot, and talking about the lack of equal opportunity and how the system doesn’t...

  8. Reimagining America
    (pp. 196-202)

    In 2007 more than 1,500 black Americans were asked the following question as part of a survey carried out for the Pew Research Center:

    Which of these statements comes closer to your view—even if neither is exactly right: Blacks today can no longer be thought of as a single race because the black community is so diverse or Blacks can still be thought of as a single race because they have so much in common.¹

    Fully 37 percent of respondents answered that they believe blacks do not represent “a single race.” This figure, so surprising to commentators—Eugene Robinson...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 203-304)
  10. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 305-306)
  11. Index
    (pp. 307-313)