II. The Situation of African-Americans in AmericaBeing coloured is like being born in the basement of life -
with the door to the light locked and barred -
and the white folks live upstairs.
Langston Hughes, in Afro-American Writings, p. 377
It is better to die than to grow up and find out that you are coloured.
In their motherland Africa black people lived together in tribes with the families staying together in the village and leading a life according to strong morals and rites. Each tribe had developed a culture and often an own language, and the people either prayed to their own Gods or often followed the teachings of the Qu`ran. But in the eyes of most Europeans, all Africans were ignorant, pagan savages who needed to be introduced to Christianity and Western civilization. And when America was discovered in 1492, Europeans soon realized that Africans were more able to work in the hot sun than the native Americans, and were also easier to identify as slaves than white prisoners because of their skin-colour. So Africans were brought to the new world and the slave-trade quickly became one of the most flourishing businesses. Only about 7 million Africans survived the "holocaustal Atlantic slave-trade", which was "financed, overseen, and run"4 by European males, while more than 50 % of the kidnapped Africans died during the journey. The first Africans were brought to the area of the USA in 1619. Africans were kidnapped, treated like animals, and brought in chains to the "promised land" which promised the formerly free human beings a life in slavery and fear of torture and whippings. In the US, blacks were a minority, making 10 to 20 % of the population.
While whites could look back in history and be proud of themselves, their country, and their achievements, the identity of the African-Americans was denied, they were forbidden to practice their culture, language, and religion. Instead, whites called Africa a jungle full of ignorant savages, living together in uncivilized tribes. This negative picture of Africa was present everywhere, especially in the white press, so blacks had to accept their position in the "white world" and therefore reject their origins, and often developed a feeling of shame and self-hatred. They had to live in a country where they were always surrounded by a European culture, by white architects, white artists, white authors, white poets, and white people. And they also had to deny their Gods and take on a white religion, praying to a white God, and being supposed to live according to a Bible written by white men, where Jesus, the angels and all the heroic characters were white, and everything evil was black. The slavemasters didn't regard their slaves as human-beings, so slaves weren't supposed to have an own will, needs or feelings. The constitutions which promised that "all men are created equal" was made only for whites: the first article called slaves three-fifth of a person, and the Dred Scott Decision of 1857 finally confirmed that slaves were no citizens but objects. 5
After the Civil War and the Emancipation Declaration which abolished slavery, everything at first seemed to change. But the so-called Reconstruction period failed: although blacks were now called "citizens", they still had no civil rights. Many whites from the South saw themselves suddenly being poor after the end of slavery and the lost war. They now had to cope with poverty and unemployment and had to compete in economics with those who once had been their property. It was hard to believe that the ex-slaves should now be citizens and therefore equal to the formerly slave masters. Hate developed, because whites wanted to keep their supremacy, and so blacks became the scapegoats for the misery of the whites. The Ku Klux Klan, rifle clubs, the White Citizens Council and many other racist organizations were founded "to keep the black man in his place" using threats, burnings and lynchings to reach this aim. 6
But there were also new laws made in the South - the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws were invented, which limited the movement and rights of the freedmen and tried to establish the old master and slave relationship. To keep blacks from registering to vote, poll taxes were raised, comprehension tests were held and the grandfather-clause was put into practice. The "Separate but Equal" decision of 1896 confirmed the segregation in the South and soon everything was being segregated - the churches, schools, even the toilets.
At the start of the twentieth century public discrimination was still supported by law in the South, and the situation was worse than ever. The Ku Klux Klan still existed and did everything to make sure that blacks kept their inferior social status and place in society. Only a few African-Americans were able to form a middle-class, but most continued to live in poverty and found the only place to forget their troubles in the (segregated) church, which gave them hope and helped them to cope with the racist society. Many tried to escape the segregation in the South by migrating to the Northern urban areas, but only to find themselves in even worse economic conditions. "They became the menial or the criminal or the shiftless, the Negroes whom segregation [had] produced and whom the South [used] to prove that segregation [was] right."7 The masses were "locked" in the ghetto - a place many often compared to prison. Life in the ghettos of the big industrialized cities was characterized by social discrimination and de facto segregation, where blacks and whites were living in "separate and unequal worlds."8 To survive the daily struggle in the concrete jungles, female children to maternity and young males to a life on the streets.
But still everything was controlled by the white man and made by the white man - law, jobs, politics, judges, juries, justice, and the mass media. The only institution where African-Americans could develop some power were mostly religious organizations. Many of these were founded in the 1920s and 1930s, like the Moorish Science Temple, the Nation of Islam, the movement under the leadership of Father Divine, or Marcus Garvey's UNIA9. These organizations tried everything not to be "white", and therefore often rejected Christianity.
Great efforts were made by African-Americans to improve their situation in America, and many protest-marches, boycotts and parades were organized by the NAACP10,CORE 11 and other organizations, but they weren't successful in changing the minds of white people.
"The treatment accorded the Negro during the Second World War marks ... a turning point in the Negro's relation to America. To put it briefly, and somewhat too simply, a certain hope died, a certain respect for white Americans faded. One began to pity them, or to hate them. You must put yourself in the skin of a man who is wearing the uniform of his country, is a candidate for death in its defence, and who is called a 'nigger' by his comrades-in-arms and his officers; who is almost always given the hardest, ugliest, most menial work to do; who knows that the white G.I. has informed the Europeans that he is subhuman ...; who does not dance at the U.S.O. the night the white soldiers dance there, and does not drink in the same bars white soldiers drink in; and who watches German prisoners of war being treated by Americans with more human dignity than he has ever received at their hands. And who, at the same time, as a human being, is far freer in a strange land than he has ever been at home. HOME ! The very word begins to have a despairing and diabolical ring. You must consider what happens to this citizen, after all he has endured, when he returns - home: search, in his shoes, for a job, for a place to live; ride, in his skin, on segregated buses; see, with his eyes, the signs saying 'White' and 'Coloured', and especially the signs that say 'White Ladies' and 'Coloured Women'; look into the eyes of his wife; look into the eyes of his son; listen, with his ears, to political speeches, North and South; imagine yourself being told to 'wait'. And all this is happening in the richest and freest country in the world, and in the middle of the twentieth century."12
of this, the fight for equal rights continued. In the South, mostly
African-Americans of the middle-class took an active part in the
struggle for integration in the American society. With the help of
the Christian church they managed to start a kind of non-violent
revolution which finally made the white people see the injustice of
segregation, so that discrimination by law was finally abolished. The
masses in the northern ghettos were frustrated and hopeless because
of the social discrimination and de facto segregation they
experienced daily. They became more radical and turned to
organizations, which preached black pride, black self-esteem, and
black nationalism, but also stressed the need for an
internationalization of the fight because of the interdependence of
all nations in the modern world.
4.) taken from "Afro-American Poetics", p. 176
5.) see The Constitution of the United States, Article One, Section 2, Paragraph 3
Dred Scott was a slave from Mississippi, who had gone to Illinois with his master. After returning to the South he claimed that he had won his freedom through the time he spent in Illinois. The case was taken before the Supreme Court, which "ruled that a slave owner could take his slaves into free territory if he chose and still retain title to them; that the prohibition of slavery in the territories was unconstitutional; and that not free Negro could claim to be a citizen of the United States. "Year's Pictorial History of the American Negro", p.31
6.) between 1889 and 1922 more than 3436 people were lynched in the US
7.) taken from the essay "A letter from the South" by James Baldwin (in "Nobody knows my name"), in "Afro American Writings", p.533
8.) in Cone, "Martin & Malcolm & America", p. 90
9.) UNIA: United Negro Improvement Association
10.) NAACP: National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People; biggest organization of African-Americans in the US, members hip in 1946: over 520,000; 1200 branches in 43 states
11.) CORE: Congress Of Racial Equality
12.) in Baldwin, James, The Fire Next Time, p.51f