Essays On Understanding Race

Essays On Understanding Race-10
In the heyday of the Atlantic slave trade, both traders and their customers understood that the cargoes of * There comes to mind in this connection the marvelous line in the movie Little Big Man, when the old Indian speaks of the freedmen as "the black white men." 145 the slave ships included Africans of different national, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds.Slave-buying planters talked in voluble, if no doubt misguided, detail about the varied characteristics of Coromantees, Mandingoes, Foulahs, Congoes, Angolas, Eboes, Whydahs, Nagoes, Pawpaws, and Gaboons.Experienced buyers and sellers could distinguish them by sight and speech, and prices would vary accordingly.3 Black people, in other words, were initially no more a racial group than Hispanics.

Struggling to make sense of this incredible piece of information, the American finally asked Duvalier: "How do you define white?

" Duvalier answered the question with a question: "How do you define black in your country?

...served as a highly visible label identifying the natives of a distant continent which 146 for ages Christians had known as a land of men radically defective in religion."7 Had some of these same dark-skinned, exotic strangers been indigenous to, let us say; a remote corner of Europe upon which Englishmen suddenly and inadvertently stumbled after their first visits to Africa, the difference in geographic origin alone would probably have led the English to attach significance to -- and therefore take verbal notice of variations in appearance that, in the context of the African continent, seemed to them insignificant.

Ideas about color, like ideas about anything else, derive their importance, indeed their very definition, from their context.

It does not bother Americans of the late-twentieth century that the term "black" can refer to physically white people, because an ideological context of which they are generally unaware has long since taught them which details to consider significant in classifying people. Everyone knows, or at least every black person knows, that there are individuals who would be unhesitatingly classified as black in Louisiana or South Carolina and just as unhesitatingly "mistaken" for white in Nebraska or Idaho or the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

According to a story that is probably apocryphal but nonetheless telling, an American journalist once asked the late Papa Doc Duvalier of Haiti what per centage of the Haitian population was white.

They are not of a single physical type and they, too, come from different countries.

Adhering to common usage, it is hard to see how they can be classed as either a single race or a single ethnic group: they do not all share either a language or a culture. They do not look alike; they came originally from different countries, spoke different languages, and had different cultures.

" Receiving the explanation that' in the United States anyone with any black blood was considered black, Duvalier nodded and said, "Well, that's the way we define white in my country." Even in the limiting case of the earliest contacts between Europeans and Africans, when by definition the context was least 147 elaborated, people made use of whatever reference points fell readily to hand in assimilating the new experience.

To this process Biblical tradition, folk superstition, and the lore of the ages certainly contributed.


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