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Achieving Blackness

Achieving Blackness: Race, Black Nationalism, and Afrocentrism in the Twentieth Century

Algernon Austin
Copyright Date: 2006
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 290
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  • Book Info
    Achieving Blackness
    Book Description:

    Achieving Blackness offers an important examination of the complexities of race and ethnicity in the context of black nationalist movements in the United States. By examining the rise of the Nation of Islam, the Black Power Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and the Afrocentric era of the 1980s through 1990s Austin shows how theories of race have shaped ideas about the meaning of Blackness within different time periods of the twentieth-century. Achieving Blackness provides both a fascinating history of Blackness and a theoretically challenging understanding of race and ethnicity. Austin traces how Blackness was defined by cultural ideas, social practices and shared identities as well as shaped in response to the social and historical conditions at different moments in American history. Analyzing black public opinion on black nationalism and its relationship with class, Austin challenges the commonly held assumption that black nationalism is a lower class phenomenon. In a refreshing and final move, he makes a compelling argument for rethinking contemporary theories of race away from the current fascination with physical difference, which he contends sweeps race back to its misconceived biological underpinnings. Achieving Blackness is a wonderful contribution to the sociology of race and African American Studies.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-6390-2
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  6. 1 Making Races
    (pp. 1-23)

    In the PBS documentary series,Wonders of the African World, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who heads the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University, is perplexed and disturbed by many of the people he meets along the Swahili coast of East Africa. Many Swahili claim an Arab or Persian identity. To Gates, these people are racially confused and ashamed to acknowledge the blackness that is written on their faces. He informs the Swahili he encounters that “if you came with me back home to Boston, Americans would say that you just look...

  7. 2 Asiatic Identity in the Nation of Islam
    (pp. 24-46)

    When a detective asked Ugan Ali, an official in the Nation of Islam in 1932, whether he had “taught a colored man named Robert Harris or Robert Karriem,” Ali shouted, “We are not colored—nobody colored us! We are Asiatic!”¹ From 1930 to 1975, thousands of black Americans entered an organization called the Nation of Islam and were transformed into members of the Asiatic race, a people who traced their origins back to Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

    To understand this Asiatic racial identity, we have to be able to see racial identities as social products and not as something determined by...

  8. 3 Achieving Blackness during the Black Power Era
    (pp. 47-73)

    In 1940, W. E. B. Du Bois insightfully defined a black person as “a person who must ride ‘Jim Crow’ in Georgia.”¹ The expression “riding Jim Crow” meant being confined to blacks-only spaces. In a broader sense, it suggested a variety of Jim Crow policies which maintained and made visible blacks’ subordination to whites. Du Bois consciously did not define a black person by skin color because he was intimately aware that “within the Negro group especially there were people of all colors.”² His definition also alludes to the experience of Homer A. Plessy. Although Plessy was seven-eighths “white” and...

  9. 4 The Racial Structures of Black Power
    (pp. 74-109)

    The 1960s and 1970s were turbulent times for America. Many Americans believed that society was being turned upside down. For young people immersed in activist circles, these feelings were even more palpable. Much of the Third World had recently waged successful independence struggles against European colonialism, and people of color in the United States increasingly came to see themselves as part of the Third World. A number of prominent American political leaders were assassinated: John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy. The racist violence around the civil rights movement and the riots that burned...

  10. 5 The Racial Ideology of Afrocentrism
    (pp. 110-129)

    “Was Cleopatra Black?” read the cover ofNewsweekin September 1991. In this article and several others,Newsweekdocumented a cultural movement called Afrocentrism that began in the 1980s and continued throughout the 1990s among black Americans. Afrocentrists argued that black Americans were culturally African and that ancient Egypt should be seen as part of black Americans’ cultural heritage. In the 1990s, not only was there an increasing amount of academic scholarship espousing Afrocentric ideas, but these ideas increasingly found their way into school curricula. One researcher estimated that in 1993 there were less than twenty Afrocentric public schools, but...

  11. 6 Conservative Black Nationalism in the Afrocentric Era
    (pp. 130-171)

    American politics shifted to the political right in the 1980s and 1990s. The black nationalism which emerged during this era was partially a response to this conservative politics, but interestingly it also absorbed some of the dominant conservative ideas. Conservatives tend to explain inequality as the result of cultural values and individual characteristics. Liberals tend to emphasize the social advantages and disadvantages of groups. Conservatives are likely to see poverty among blacks, for example, as stemming from blacks lacking a work ethic, whereas liberals are likely to see poverty as stemming from racial discrimination.

    Afrocentrists believed the social problems facing...

  12. 7 Change in Black Nationalism in the Twentieth Century
    (pp. 172-194)

    Black nationalism varies sociohistorically. Just as black social movements affect American society, other social movements and other forces in American society affect black social activism. This chapter examines broad historical changes in black nationalism. First, it details changes in the black public’s support for black nationalism as measured by public opinion surveys. Second, it describes the broad historical patterns in black nationalist activism.

    The analysis of public opinion data shows that the support for black nationalism among the black public in the Afrocentric era equaled or exceeded the level of support in the Black Power era. Also, contrary to the...

  13. 8 Making Races, Making Ethnicities
    (pp. 195-214)

    Scholars distinguish the concepts of race and ethnicity in a variety of ways. The most common distinction is that race refers to socially acknowledged differences in physical appearance while ethnicity refers to socially acknowledged differences in cultural background.¹ I have rejected the physical appearance-based definition of race in favor of one that builds race out of the belief that groups have heritable essential differences. Ideas of essential difference, racial stereotypes, and other racial ideas make up a racial ideology. Racial ideologies are developed in the interests of political and economic exploitation and competition. When race is fully developed, racial ideologies...

  14. Appendix
    (pp. 215-222)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 223-282)