last thursday i met some friends for coffee, to discuss an upcoming fundraiser. we talked about everything under the sun including slavery and its implications. at one point someone compared african american slavery with jewish subjugation at the hands of the babylonians and pharoahs. besides the obvious difference in time elapsed since their respective liberation, there seem to be other unique factors inherent in the african american experience. african american slaves were ripped from their land, their culture, their language, their world and brought into an alien land. many africans were terrified by their captors because they had never seen people with white skin – they thought that they were ghosts, non-human, otherworldly.
they did not arrive in america as an exiled “community” but as fragments of tribes and cultures that most of them never came into contact with after their capture. most slaves did not speak the language of other slaves. the horror and loneliness of this fact alone is unimaginable. there was no cohesive community, no common language, no shared traditions, no comforting rituals, no common stories and myths, and no shared religion. there was nothing to tell them who they were and where they came from. no one to validate their sense of self-identity. it is truly nightmarish to be isolated to this point. on the other hand, most jews have a strong sense of community, of where they come from and who they are.
if one thinks about it, it is quite admirable that african americans overcame this by turning their experience of slavery into such a vibrant and strong culture. whether it be worship, music, language (strongly recommend toni morrison to get a feel for the african american experience through the “language” of the slaves), dance, or fashion, african americans have evolved into an incredibly creative community. if more of them were given the right circumstances to bloom and exercise this creativity, god knows how wonderfully explosive it would be.
btw here’s a great short film by kiki davis – it highlights problems of identity that stem from what I have tried to describe above – check it out.