Encounters and Crossings: The Ambiguity of African American Identity

by Pamela Johnson, Masters Student in Modern European History at Loyola University Chicago.  Crossposted from The Scholarly Wife.

This past semester, I wrote a paper on historian Natalie Zemon Davis entitled, “Encounters and Crossings: The Life and Work of Natalie Zemon Davis.” Known for her charming writing style and impressive archival research, Davis has gravitated towards “exposing and bringing to life the histories of those groups often suppressed in traditional historical narratives.” She is a historian of early modern France, but more recently her work has taken her outside of Europe. Her life as both a woman and a Jew has been a story of encounters and crossings, a desire to be in the center, while challenging from the periphery. In reminiscing on her time in grade school, she once remarked, “I was very eager to be a good student and to be popular and do all the other things you were supposed to do, but I was Jewish.” She went on to say, “I was certainly an outsider.” The contradictions of center and periphery have guided Davis throughout her historical career.

There are striking similarities between Davis’ life and my own. She struggled with her Jewish identity in her younger days and I have wrestled with what it means to be African American. The complexities of African American identity sometimes astound me. It’s interesting that no matter how old you get, you still never fully grasp or understand it…for the identity is a paradox in itself. It is ambiguous because it attempts to be both African and American, while simultaneously, it is neither. You’re no longer found in the motherland, abandoned instead on strange soil. Yet this is your home…but here you are often rejected, often despised, often misunderstood. You feel an unspoken separation from both localities. So, in the end, where do you stand?

Davis’ work really got me thinking about this when she talks about being the only woman in a room filled with men (some who often ignore her or treat her as less their equal), forced to reconcile between her position on the periphery while participating in the center. As a black woman, I have often felt the sting that makes you firmly aware that you are…somehow different from those around you, whether that means you’re the only black person in the room when the topic in class is American slavery, or you’re the only woman in the room during a discussion of the evolution of feminism. This idea of “encounters and crossings” has been my entire life. Specifically in the world of academia, my position as an African American woman has often bewildered or enthused people. Reactions to my presence have ranged from unmerited curiosity to accolades and rewards. By unmerited curiosity, I mean I have been the recipient of curious excitement when I walk into a room, as if people are saying, “ooh, a black girl, how fun!” Yet, I have also witnessed the befuddled looks on the faces of soon-to-be colleagues as they say something to me like, “Oh, this is the modern Europe class” as if I stumbled into the wrong room (that actually happened to me, by the way).

Truly for me in the field of liberal arts, in history in particular, my African American identity is a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that, I suppose it makes me unique. I find that in every department I go to, people whom I’ve never met have heard of me or know of me simply because I am “that black girl.” Although it’s unfair to leave it just at that, because I do work hard. There have certainly been those professors who have heard of me because I’ve done well in one of their colleague’s classes and that has often led to high expectations of my work, which I gladly oblige. I’ve always enjoyed a challenge. But, on the other hand, it’s led me to times where professional historians approach me, automatically assuming that a) I should be doing black history and b) that I won’t make it in this field dominated by mostly white males.

My southern upbringing, modest background in the French language, and the few opportunities I had to study French history in my undergrad have served me in interesting ways. I’ve found sources of great encouragement from those who say things such as, “Everyone is going to want you in their department when you get your PhD. You are an African American woman from the south with very little French background who has claimed this field as her own.” And that’s fine. That’s actually awesome. But it’s also afforded me some discouragement such as, “No one’s going to expect that you can make it in this field. You’re setting up a very hard road for yourself ahead…” or “Your lack of background in French history will be a stumbling block for you along the way.” How all of this will play out remains to be seen. However, it is striking that I’m constantly forced to make peace with these different opinions and reactions to something as seemingly simple as being there…my presence, my skin, my gender. Certainly, my life is filled with paradoxes. Filled with ambiguity, filled with irony, oxymoron’s…

The reason I define the African American identity as ambiguous is because, like the word suggests, it is: “open to more than one interpretation; it has a double meaning. It is unclear or inexact because a choice between alternatives has not been made.” If I am honest, this ambiguity ties directly into why I am not an American historian.

As a historian, I have to recognize my own position in the historical community. I must admit that my decision to do European history was very much a conscious one. It was more than just my own fascination with France (which is certainly a major part of my decision). It was also a means of discontinuity with an “African American” identity. Before you misinterpret my words, when I was growing up, one of my biracial friends would constantly protest to us in defiance, “I am NOT black!” This is in no way what I mean by discontinuity. I am an African American woman, and of that I am quite proud. My discontinuity was simply getting lost in the pages of history…where I no longer felt the pressure of being “African American,” but instead I was just “Pam”…a historian attempting to understand life through the eyes of a nineteenth-century peasant.

But, if I’m forthright about my “position” then that requires a careful analysis of the society that shaped my values and beliefs. Growing up in Arkansas, I feel that I was constantly reminded of my “place” as an African American in the south. Whether that meant that I was discriminated against or seen as “one of the good one’s,” I was constantly aware of the weight of being an example of my race. My decision to study European history was an attempt to step away from that weight. European history offered me the chance to not be inundated with my race.

The history I was taught growing up seemed to be a never-ending tale of black oppression. Now, from a professional standpoint of understanding the “big three” – class, race, and gender – this oppressive tale is absolutely right. For I could never read about the Founding Fathers without remembering that my ancestors were being forcibly carried in chains to this country deemed “the land of the free.” Nor could I read about the Roaring 1920s and the Age of Jazz without being confronted with the discrimination that African American musicians were subjected to and the humiliation of using back doors or not being allowed to stay in the exclusive, all-white hotels where they were invited to provide entertainment. And I also cannot think about World War II without remembering that African American soldiers returned home, all the more bitter about their treatment as second-class citizens. I’m reminded of Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins’ reflection on American racism in Devil in a Blue Dress: “I had spent five years with white men, and women, from Africa to Italy, through Paris, and into the Fatherland itself. I ate with them and slept with them, and I killed enough blue-eyed young men to know that they were just as afraid to die as I was.” Yet, we were treated as “different.”

Now, yes, these are larger American events. I can’t even begin to mention the many lynchings, assassinations, beatings, and other forms of diabolical mistreatment African Americans have suffered through.

With this in perspective, there’s no doubt in my mind that if I were to go into a Freudian psychoanalysis of my decision to study Europe, I would find that it was a combined effort of the unconscious and self-awareness that brought about my fascination in France. It served as a break away from the America that confused me so much in terms of my identity as an African and an American.

Of course, as I learned, France and Europe have their own racial history and past, one that is just as exploitative, and perhaps more so. While I am personally connected to African American history, I cannot deny Europeans the recognition of their “civilizing missions” of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the slaughtering of millions in an attempt to make “savages” more like “godly Europeans.” And they were quite successful in their mission, as western civilization still currently determines what is beautiful, what is acceptable, what is modern, and what is democratic. As historian Geoffrey Barraclough once said, “By 1900, European civilization overshadowed the earth.” Therefore, yes, Europe has its own racially charged history, even if it is not as personal to me. That is an entire story in itself.

Conclusively, no, I’m not here to offer some deep revelation of the African American identity. What does it mean to be African American? I have to admit that I don’t have an answer to this conundrum. How do I, myself, personally define it? I’m unsure…I’ll save that for major theorists, sociologists, historians and others who like to probe the depths of the human condition. Truthfully, this blog post is more about vulnerability and laying bare my own troubles with my African American identity.  Quite frankly, I don’t believe that there is any definitive answer or definition to that identity. Therein lies the ambiguity. It is a peculiar, yet awe-inspiring position to be in. I do know that my own life has (and continues to be so) been a tale of encounters and crossings, of challenges and acceptance, of periphery and center. As a historian, I seek to find others in that same position. Furthermore, I choose to find myself in the pages of history. As Davis put it, “History reveals the possibilities of the past – admirable, troubling, irritating, astonishing – and as such, they encourage us to think about the possibilities in the present and future. For me, the possibility of the past invites a commitment to humanity and offers a ray of hope for the future.”And, yet, there’s a strange wonder and excitement within it all.

Readings Mentioned: 
Natalie Zemon Davis, “A Life of Learning” Haskins Lecture, American Council of Learned Societies, 1998.
Geoffrey Barraclough, “The Impact of Technical and Scientific Advance” in An Introduction to Contemporary History.
Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress.
Random Readings From My Classes That Really Make You Think About Being Black In America:
Gail Bederman, “‘Civilization,’ the Decline of Middle-Class Manliness, and Ida B. Wells’s Antilynching Campaign (1892–94).”
Fogel and Engerman,  Time on the Cross (in case you’re up for a reading that will infuriate you).

7 thoughts on “Encounters and Crossings: The Ambiguity of African American Identity

  1. Courtney M. Baxter

    Pam, I’m happy someone brought this up since I am the “other Black girl” in the graduate history program at Loyola. I find it interesting how little anyone discusses the racial or ethnic diversity of historians. While it is the progressive thing to promote diverse ways of viewing history it’s really expected that African Americans study and/or teach Black history; going outside of that makes you a curiosity. Furthermore, the history field in America is still dominated by White European American men and women while consistently non-White people are not encouraged to pursue history.

    1. Hi Courtney, I’m happy we can connect via this post! It is a difficult view to share, yet one that is necessary to discuss. When I first decided to major in history, I certainly felt the pressure. Most black historians I met seemed to be, in a way, upset that I chose to not study black history, which is certainly discouraging. On the other hand, white historians would be surprised (pleasantly, for the most part) but certainly questioned my motives. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked, “Why did you choose this field?” Sometimes, I want to counter that question with, “Well, why did you?” Despite the quasi-negative response to my professional choices, I can say that I have received an immense amount of encouragement as well from historians of many different races and ethnicities. I’m curious to know whether the same has been true for you in public history?

      1. Courtney M. Baxter

        It’s a bit difficult with public history because many people have no idea what that is. I’ve had people assume that I must be studying Black history. Funny thing is I have little formal education in Black history (other than my personal interests). My undergraduate history degree ended up being more focused in Church history than anything.

  2. There is always going to be people who do not like other people for whatever. That is reason enough to diverge on the road. Nay sayers are everywhere and some have good intentions. In the end we define what and who we are. We are motivated by our motivations and by chance they might make a difference. Like those who have gone before, recognized way past their time for their achievements, so we might be. They said I could not make it in the military, I am retired. They said I would not succeed with a history degree, I say bs. They said I should not go to a masters program. I did and am in it and am learning a lot about history, the world and myself. I do not like negativity, although sometimes it is a time to admit defeat, but there is always another path. This was a very good post and I wish much luck to those who are embarking on the less traveled path.

    P.S. I was the only white person in my undergrad black history class. I felt the tension. I wanted to know more about it so I took the class. No regrets. It is a great historical discipline ripe for discovery and analysis.

    1. Pamela Watson

      I appreciate the encouragement. I agree with you as well. I find that in my life, the path less traveled has often been the one worth fighting for. I’m happy to hear the same for you.

  3. On a funny note, if you have watched “Community” since the beginning, I believe is the 2nd episode when “Senor Chang” is introduced to us. He presents himself as an Asian Spanish teacher and problematizes the effect of race on his students. Keng Jeong’s performance is great but reading your post and comments, I would recommend you to watch it to have a good lough. I am really happy that we discuss these issues because if we don’t do it, who will? Race, class, gender are categories of meaning that are up for grabs nowadays and I believe that we, grad students or otherwise people affiliated with academic institutions, should rise our voices and openly discuss them.

    1. Pamela Watson

      I agree with you wholeheartedly! Race, class, and gender are absolutely categories that merit analysis. They have certainly led to some fascinating debates on our present culture. I often do wonder, though, how much historical conversations can affect modern affairs. How can histories of various sorts change race, gender, or class relations today? I realize that’s a broad question, but it’s something I think we all think about as academics and as participants in contemporary culture.

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