I’ve recently been working on some essays for an undergraduate resource, in which several different scholars answer the same question with different answers. The idea is to give undergrads a sense of the way a historical argument is composed, as well as a range of ways to answer major historical questions.
One of my questions was: “Do African Americans constitute a nation within a nation?” In order to answer this question I started to muse on two disparate ideas–what is a nation? and what is black nationalism? Most of the study of the concept of “nation” that I have done has been in the context of Eastern Europe (an early fork in the road I did not take). For instance, one of the first history texts I remember reading and sinking my teeth into was Eric Hobsbawm’s Nations and Nationalism. For a brush up, I read the entry on nationalism in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas, which concentrated primarily on the difference between nations built on political union (like the United States) and those built on ethnic identity (like Eastern European countries).
I was following the Dictionary’s argument along fairly happily, till it had a throw away sentence about how multi-ethnic nations are possible and that this is proved by the fact that African Americans constitute a (happy little) “nation within a nation.” I felt like the author was implying that “Though we’ve had our differences, now everything is sweet and harmonious.” (Perhaps I ought not to have gone to the Dictionary in the first place and now that I’m trying to refind the url, always so easy in the past and now proving illusory, I’m not sure whether I was in the “New” Dictionary or the one that is quite old).
The more I thought about the question, the more strongly I felt like I had to argue that African Americans do not constitute a separate nation. This is in part due to the difficulties within historic claims to black separatism–in their ultimate goals, they all posited mass movement or displacement–returning to Africa, or taking over Oklahoma or something like that. Those within the group might have been willing to move, but it would have taken a catastrophe like the Bosnian war to force all people of African descent in this country to relocate. Political independence on a local scale has worked to some extent (in black towns or in cities with black mayors), but those entities still have to be in relationship to state or national governments.
Black nationalism has also been expressed economically–and again this has worked more successfully at a local level than at a national one–and at many different local levels. That is another difficulty–do black New Yorkers share more of their identity with other New Yorkers or with rural black Alabamans? Well, I would guess it depends on the individual and the level of discrimination. But how would a distinct nation link all these disparate groups across the country together? Perhaps in the media.
Even while arguing these things, I wanted to recognize that there is a particular identity that many African Americans claim–often called “black.” I posited that this might be called a racial identity, because as such it did not require the kind of political or economic autonomy suggested by the word “nation.” And I also pointed out how often the products of African American’s hands, brains, and musical ears have contributed to an American identity. It is impossible to separate the development of the United States from the work that slaves did or the cultural contributions of African Americans. Certainly, in the world, one of the United States’ most recognized exports is rap music.
The United States is black Americans’ nation. For the most part, African Americans created a new ethnic identity out of merged African and European traditions on this continent. I can see how it would make sense to talk about Korean Americans or even Ethiopian Americans (particularly the first generation and those who continue to speak their birth languages) as a nation within a nation. It does not seem like the same logic applies to African Americans.
Ok, but what about all those ethnic intellectuals that created nationalism out of more or less whole cloth? Czech and Polish poets who wrote down their languages for the first time in the mid-1800s and began to create a national identity? If they can do this, why can’t African Americans do the same? And of course, many black intellectuals have done just this–created the content of a black nationalism, or an Africana philosophy.
Perhaps the solution to this final question is the way the essay question is worded–it is “do African Americans constitute a nation within a nation” not “should African Americans be a separate nation, have a separate nationalism?” It seems to me that the first question is more suited to a historian and the second to a public intellectual.
I don’t know, though. The whole essay caused huge internal turmoil for me. Maybe by asserting that African Americans’ nation was the United States (without a separate concentric nation), I was aliding historical reality in the way that I thought the author of the Dictionary essay had done. Was I doing a major disservice to the lived experiences of some African Americans while recognizing that of those who claim a fully American identity. To recognize the latter group, I discussed black soldiers. The contribution of black soldiers to every American war has often been raised to “prove” African Americans’ patriotism and commitment to this country.
I’m researching South Africa right now and this is what brought up these thoughts again today. Leon De Kock’s sentence that caused this post: “Arguments about the origins of South African “literature” still shuttle between different languages, different nationalisms, and different notions of culture, history, and belonging in mutually excluding series and genealogies.“ Do Afrikaaners constitute a “nation within a nation?” They have been in South Africa nearly as long as people of African or European descent have been in the territory that became the United States. Do Zulus? Because of the many different languages in South Africa, are they more nearly a multi-nation state? Or is the correlation with the United States closer than I’m recognizing?
What do you all think about the concept of the “nation?” When I first started studying it, we were right before 9-11 and my profs kept talking about how the nation-state was going to fade away in favor of the multi-national corporation. It seems like the post-9-11 era and anti-terrorism has reasserted the importance of the nation-state.