Symbolic Interactionism and The African American Identity

Published 16 Feb 2017

The African American experience is one by label and by reality that is distinctly paradoxical. Forcibly relocated from the land of its heritage and perpetuated in a land which had first enslaved it, thereafter oppressed it and perpetually undermined it, the African American nation may not be readily identified either with Africa, from which it is now many hundred of years removed, nor with America, which had persisted for generations to disrupt any opportunities for the development of an independent American identity through physical, social and spiritual brutality.

The result is, in retrospect, a culture which would come into definition in simultaneity with the introduction of slavery to the United States and which would develop according to the developments of slavery and abolition. With consideration to the idea of symbolic interactionism, which argues that meanings become creating within the context of cultures, societies and behaviors between individuals and groups, the African American has clearly been deeply impacted by the creation of meaning and the establishment of symbolic identifying factors which accompanied the development of America’s inherently racist culture. Most of the references used to support this claim are drawn from primary sources, derived both from former slaves and from slavers. Such texts should help to illustrate the ways in which psychological conditioning, cultural indoctrination and symbolic repatriation would be utilized to create an Americanized African, shaped for the purposes of improving his compliance with the requirements of his master.

Though it would not succeed in defining definitively the identity of the African American, this experience would nonetheless factor into a psyche unique and separate amongst those of America or Africa for this very reason. The sociological impact of symbolic interactionism is therefore discussed here with consideration to the longterm historical experience of African Americans as a function of America’s core racism.

In said discussion, the slave narratives offer something which presents itself as a solution to the present dilemma over defining the point at which an African American identity had been developed, but in another manner, only deepens the complication of the problem from an outside perspective. A recurrent theme in the first-person accounts offered by freed slaves is the value of Christianity to the struggle to overcome hardship and torment such as that inherent to a life of toil and servitude. For many, this was the true salvation of being forced to find a home in an inhospitable nation. But the extent to which this force would occupy the place of hope for many forward-looking slaves cannot be underestimated, as “The Life of Olaudah Equiano” will attest.

Among the first freed slaves to become an active and vocal part of the abolitionist movement from the relatively safer distance from America of the less oppressive Great Britain in the late 18th century, Equiano describes his bondage as “the mysterious ways of Providence.” (Gates, 3) It would be his transport from slavery in Africa to captivity in the New World that would place him in the hands of a Philadelphia Christian with a generous disposition. The aspect of Equiano that we might consider a most apparent personal perspective is that shaped by his piety, a faithfulness which bore its origins in America. This would imbue him with a quality of graciousness, to which one might owe the perspective taken in the following statement:

“Did I consider myself an European, I might say my sufferings were great: but when I compare my lot with that of most of my countrymen, I regard myself as a particular favourite of Heaven.” (Gates, 12)

Equiano offers a statement here which might help us to navigate through the apparent contradiction inherent to America’s dual traditions of Christianity and slavery. In understanding the roots of Equiano’s solace in faith, we might also better understand the capacity of the slave to retain his identity in the face of the dehumanizing conditions which the author describes in reference to his captivity. For Equiano, there would remain a direct connection to Africa which, though no longer relevant to his geographical home, would nonetheless define his experiences in the world. The comparison rendered above between the life of a European and the life of an African speaks volumes to the subject at hand, suggesting that for Equiano, the fate of slavery and eventual freedom, and even the growth of a modest personal estate, marks him as considerably more fortunate than those who would be robbed of their lives or enslaved for the duration by the brutal labor system. Noting this comparison, Equiano acknowledges that the identification with Africa is, in many ways, an honest identification with a heritage of suffering and shared grief.

This may be considered of relevance in our attempt to better comprehend the point at which this connection becomes somewhat more of an abstraction to increasingly more Americanized generations of slave. Indeed, Equiano’s African birth and forced relocation would orient him toward deep psychological ties to the continent. But for those who would find their freedom only centuries hence, and particularly for those who would be born into slavery, the notion of an African history would not only seem remote but would be pointedly stifled by the mandated assimilation often required of those purchased into white families. This evidence is available in multiple instances for Equiano, who would receive a name change when sold to an American slaver at his 11th year and who would adopt Methodist Christianity as his religion at the behest of the master from whom he would eventually buy his freedom.

For his captors, both of negative of positive disposition, Equiano would be a man whom they believed themselves entitled to tailor, and they did so in a manner as to only further separate him from his African birth. In fact, there may perhaps be no more powerful symbolic induction of meaning than to rename an individual who has already grown into his identity. The ability of one to effectively change another’s name has a resounding impact on our understanding of the social aspects of reinforcing the legitimacy of slavery. If a name is only symbolic to start, it does eventually become tied to questions of social interaction and identity. The willful alteration of such suggests something of the social control underlying the theory of symbolic interactionism.

Ira Berlin’s 2003 text helps to capture the disenfranchising sociological effect of this dynamic, with the collective of experiences afflicting those enslaved suggesting that the category ‘African American’ is one which could only be manufactured in retrospect of this group’s development. Certainly, those first who were transplanted to America will surely have viewed themselves as Africans, but this would not be so for the generation which these individuals would immediately produce. And the practice of separating children from parents and deconstructing slave families would help to suppress this history for the coming generations, leaving only the new historical experience of slavery to define the nation of men and women thereby produced. As Berlin would explain this nationalist limbo, “although the countenances of these ‘Atlantic creoles’ might bear the features of African, Europe, or the Americas in whole or part, their beginnings, strictly speaking, were in none of these places.” (Berlin, 23) Such is to say that the experience of being forced from Africa and in particular the horrifically detailed travails of the Middle Passage, would begin to shape the history of a people parallel to and separate from the history of Africans, of Americans or of Europeans. In contrast to all of these peoples, African Americans would be a group derived from a wide range of cultural or tribal backgrounds and yet indiscriminately homogenized under the singular banner of American slavery.

To this end, we might press forward with the essential argument that the moment at which the African American nation came to be was that marking the initiation and implementation of the slave trade, which immediately began to define a point of transition in the creation of meaning and interaction between Europeans and Africans. It was this process which began to separate the histories of the African people and the African people transplanted to America. This is a meaningful point of inflection with respect to this referenced diversity of culture for transplanted Africans, who would find a unified nation not necessarily with those of similar African backgrounds but with those made similar by the experience of being relocated from Africa to the New World. As this collective of Africans became willfully pigeonholed into a single and indistinct cultural identity, it would increasingly become accurate to say that this was a culturally common group, relatively speaking.

As we venture forward to posit the argument that African Americans, as a people, came into existence in simultaneity with the establishment of the slave trade in North America, it is useful to step back and consider another possible case. It might be suggested that to affix a collective identity to a group of people only made culturally common in their shared affliction of slavery is to indulge the composition of anthropological history according to the plan of America’s white slave-holders. Indeed, it would be the pricing of individuals as buyable commodities which would initiate the process of removing from them former identities and meanings. In the Walter Johnson text which explores the slave trade as an industry and practice, the author remarks that “any slave’s identity might be disrupted as easily as a price could be set and a piece of paper passed form one and to another.” (Johnson, 4)

It must therefore be distinguished, in conducting the present argument, that the experiences imposed by transition in America would create a new culture that, whether bred of acceptance or resistance, would represent a point at which no return to Africa could be genuinely expected to yield a return to that cultural identity. Generations would be reared into American society under the machinations of slavery, and this very reality would be of greater relevance of meaning than any level of personal acceptance, whether that acceptance would have taken the shape of an abandonment of African cultural identifiers or of the outright acceptance of Christian worship. To paraphrase John Rolfe in the compilation of Holt et al, resistance had been anticipated by slavers and would be dealt with psychologically, systemically or, if necessary, by corporal force.(Holt, 83) Therefore, the indulgence of an identity with roots in the transport of slaves to the New World may be seen as appropriate from the perspective of the enslaved, for whom there can be no other way of identifying the American experience than as a former African.

This induction of meaning, though, would not necessarily translate into a ‘good’ or valuable slave. Thus, all manner of technique would be employed to assail any retained degree of cultural identity, where slavers would attempt to overwhelm natural instincts toward freedom and self-determination to the detriment of rational humanism. A wide liberty was taken in the creation of symbolic meanings which could justify and maintain the practice of slavery. “The attempt of the planters to assert control over slave identities . . . belied the probity of patriarchism.” (Parent, 226)

As such, integrating newly arrived laborers into their bondage would become a matter of ritualistic psychological conditioning. The renaming of slaves, Anthony Parent’s text would indicate based on primary sources from slavers and other labor-overseers, is a process that would be joined with the symbolic and dually degrading gesture of stripping slaves ‘stark naked’ and presenting them to their owners. In addition to reducing defiant individuals to a more humbling state, this would be an act of “stripping them of their former identities.” (Parent, 226) This was done with the intention of bringing these new arrivals to an understanding of their new identity as subjects under the dominion of a slave-owner. Indeed, this indoctrination was conducted with an intention of initiating the captives to their new life in America, and was thus interwoven with distinct symbolic features of what was itself only a nascent culture for European transplants in the colonies.

Certainly, this was not a readily accepted fate by the first-arriving slaves. The indignity of renaming an individual well within his own capacity to comprehend his name and attach it to some identity is to rob the individual of any impression of self-volition and simultaneously to rob him of the heritage implied by his birth name. Parent’s text abbreviates a segment of the Equiano autobiography which underscores the emotional impact of this act, especially as it applies to the meaning of its connection to one’s fading culture:
Equiano remembered that Igbo names marked either some event or foreboding at the time of one’s birth. His given name Olaudah, foreshadowing his life, suggested the following characteristics: vicissitude, fortune, favor, and loud voice. Yet, even though he had his own African names, his captors imposed other Anglicized personal names, first Jacob, then Michael, that called up a ‘miserable, forlorn, and much dejected state. . .which made my life a burden.’ (Parent227)

His capture would take from him the good fortune bestowed by his cultural heritage. The new one put in its place, considered with an absence of judgment, may be distinctly noted as a non-African experience as a result of such profound events. However, it would be remiss to infer from this that the experience has been made any more American either. In Charles Ball’s autobiography, the early passages offer insight into this difficult dichotomy by placing the third generation slave into direct contact with his grandfather. The old man, a survivor of the Middle Passage and a man claiming to have held some royal ranking in his African village, would only have been Americanized insofar as he had come by absence of any other choice to adopt the lifestyle of an American slave. But the generation gap would be considerable between those with such a direct recollection of adulthood and an ingrained attachment to the African culture and those who would be only two generations and seemingly worlds separated from the native continent. Ball would observe of his grandfather that “it is not strange that he believed the religion of his oppressors to be the invention of designing men, for the text oftenest quoted in his hearing was, ‘Servants, be obedient to your masters.'” (Ball, 15)

The author raises a point which suggests that there was not an absence of awareness for many slaves that Christian indoctrination was itself manifested of the same impulses for conditioning and identity casting as would provoke name changing, family dismantling and a general perpetuation of ignorance as to native culture, familial heritage and features of an identity existent prior to being imported into slavery. Nonetheless, succeeding generations rendered it increasingly difficult for many slaves to recognize the aggressive creation of meaning which had helped to instigate their circumstances.

This suggests an important resolution in our discussion, which is that prior to the arrival of the first African slaves to America, the culture to which these individuals would be indoctrinated did not exist. Even though Ball’s grandfather steadfastly remains loyal to the vestiges of his culture, it defines less about his experience in America than do the realities of slavery and racism. Therefore, what he and his fellow transplants have become, and what their offspring will reflect with a deepening ignorance to that which existed prior, is a new culture to be named African American in succeeding centuries of sociological change.

Though it is clear that few slaves inclined to write about their experience are inclined to write from a position of comfort and acceptance in an equitable American society, they are nonetheless impelled by some level of recognition that the collective identity of those sharing the experience of slavery in the America would be one underscored by the meanings created by their tormentors. A nation of African Americans would be born and manipulated at the launch of the first Middle Passage voyage. Today, it is this nation which traces its heritage to the arrival of its ancestors to the plantations of the American south, rather than to the villages of Africa. And yet, tracing this line can hardly be said to promote a sense of inclusion, patriotism or national identification. Thus, it seems one must arrive at the resolution that the African American identity began with the inception of the experience of the African people in America, characterized as it would be by the symbolic associations of racism, slavery, inequality and the triumphant and ongoing emergence from these shadows.

Works Cited

  • Ball, Charles. (2003). Fifty Years in Chains. Dover.
  • Berlin, Ira. (2003). Generations of Captivity: A History of African American Slaves. Harvard University Press.
  • Gates, Henry Louis (ed.). (2002). Equiano’s Narrative Classic Slave Narratives. Signet
  • Holt, Thomas C. & Elsa Barkley Brown. (2000). Major Problems in African American History. Houghton Mifflin Company.
  • Johnson, Walter. (1999). Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market. Harvard University Press.
  • Parent, Anthony Jr. (2003). Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660-1740. University of North Carolina Press.
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