Kelly Limes-Taylor Henderson has a PhD in Educational Policy Studies. Her dissertation, titled One Hundred and Sixteenth: One Family’s Education, has a section on Afro-Pessimism. I’ve read it a few times and wanted to share interesting insights and snippets here. Her perspective has a different tone than my previous posts on this subject. It’s brighter and more hopeful. It finds something to celebrate.
Assume everything is a summary of her writing or a direct quote unless otherwise clarified with an “I” statement.
She starts off talking about being undeniably of African decent yet wishing there was some sense of specific connection. Says there’s no true emotional or documented bond to any specific African nation. She acknowledges that having brown skin doesn’t make her African and perhaps her Browness and her ignorance of specific ancestry is what 1) proves her African heritage and 2) makes her much more American.
The transatlantic slave trade snatched people’s indigeneity, their sense of home. They became people of no nation and without the ability to recall customs and traditions that provide a sense of culture and connection and belonging. This was intentionally done to create a group of people who would not long for home. They’d have nothing to avenge.
“Black” describes the descendants of this country’s caste of enslavement/servitude.
"Any connection forged to a land outside of the one that necessitates our enslavement/servitude is, at best, crafted from careful study and deliberate outreach rather than any extant, unbroken bonds between people there and here. And while there exist some examples that refute this – Diasporic communities able to retain some linguistic or cultural remnants of indigeneity; serendipitous encounters that reveal long-lost kinship; Diasporic Blacks that are adopted and/or championed by Indigenous African communities – the majority of us cling to little more than an inexplicable superstition or two, or the use of creole languages that others think prove a lack of intelligence, or an aesthetic that we are supposed to ignore, excuse, or hide."
She suggests Black Americans are the ultimate Americans because the nation would not exist without us nor we without it.
"I do not think there is any way to undo an attempted erasure of such mass proportions.”
I agree with that statement.
"However, I differ with Afropessimist thinkers in that I believe that this violent effort to strip millions of Africans of their indigenous connections and identities has placed their Black American descendants in a unique position – that of consistent and ever-present reminders that humanity can be found in holding on to and building from the vestiges of indigeneity. Thus, while the position of Blackness in the settler colonial ontology is one of negation, Black Americans themselves actually represent the importance of indigeneity as a marker of humanity, as they have affirmed and recreated their own humanity in the face of White oppression. It is this resilience in the face of oppression that should be the foundation for decolonizing thought and action,"
She acknowledges quite a few ways she can address the question of decolonization and then says this :
“However, when I put down the books and articles full of others’ research and sit quietly with myself, I can come to terms with some things that I know to be true:
I am a Black person in the United States.
I am not indigenous to any place. There is no land, no region to which I feel any particular connection. I hold no stories in my heart that link my being to any time or any place.
Despite my lack of indigeneity and the oppression that I experience as a Black person in the United States, I am aware that the first oppressive acts of the settler colonial system that created me were the theft of Indigenous land and life within current the U.S. borders. I believe that responsibly resisting this system entails resisting this first oppression as well.
Because I exist and am writing from within the United States, a settler-colony nation state that displaced and/or destroyed multiple Indigenous nations, a powerful way to push back against the oppressive system that this country perpetuates is to employ, among other things, the methods and theories of peoples whose very existence defies that system. Speaking back from a place of negation is equally important as speaking back from a place of non-existence.
"During American-enforced enslavement, the attempted stripping of Africans’ indigeneity was probably not understood in those terms; rather, taming, breaking of spirits, educating, religiously converting, civilizing – those were the purported goals. The underlying ambition, however, was the same: erasing the African’s connection to his language, traditions, history and familial bonds in order to create a Black – a body specifically designed to fulfill the physical, mental and economic needs of the European-descended White.”
This is where i think the other afro pessimist writings end or at least that’s been my understanding. We’re left with the question remaining, how could you possibly assert humanity when this is your foundation of identity or relative position to the country you’re in? Everything you create and grow for the purpose of identity and culture is tainted with this as its foundation, it is in response to and defined by this tragedy.
"In addition, some assert that the eventual mixture of diverse tribes during enslavement was also a hindrance to the specific indigenous traditions’ survival."
An alternative perspective however is "what is understood as the loss of the enslaved Africans’ tribal affiliations – and thus, I assert, the loss of their connections with their home regions, or their indigeneity – was often a conscious jettisoning, amending or hiding of linguistic and cultural practices. Now in the United States, these Africans decided what of the Old Land they needed to keep, what they needed to let go, and, significantly, what they needed to hybridize in order to survive in the New Land.” She believes "Rather than succumbing to White attempts to eradicate their indigeneity, then, the enslaved Africans and their American-born children interrogated their traditions and initially protected them by preserving, altering or disguising them from the dominant group."
"Other scholars, while agreeing that elements of African culture were transformed and hybridized with the enslaved person’s arrival to the Americas, do not indicate that this transformation was always a conscious one, but was sometimes an inevitable occurrence due to exposure to new groups and new lands.”
Some thought the blend was a product of a naturally broad versatile cultural aesthetic and philosophy that allowed for multiple methods of practice to be applied.
"This extensive list has important implications regarding the African cultural practices of enslaved peoples in the British colonies/United States. First, social, religious, and political circumstances in Africa affected the manifestations of ethnic cultural practices in North America.”
Also the time of import where they were imported to. She gives multiple examples of how opposing religious identities of blended tribes could act as a resistance to cultural blending and preservation, and how exportation of very similar cultural group at once and into somewhat isolated situations (only working outside, being left to their own devices, or in a specific state) could lead to easier longevity of certain elements.
"Multiple scholars assert that it was the concentration of one cultural group that shared religious and linguistic similarities across its ethnic groups, combined with living and work situations that required less contact with Whites, that had a significant cultural effect on the surrounding enslaved population."
"However, all of these scholars, despite their differences, prove an important point: despite the ravages of enslavement and subsequent oppression of African and African-descended people in the Americas throughout the centuries of the modern era, these people, whether intentionally or unintentionally, retained or adopted aspects of African indigeneity through linguistic and other practices”
Whether it was intentional resistance or incidental perseverance, some African heritage elements were resilient.
"However, all of these scholars, despite their differences, prove an important point: despite the ravages of enslavement and subsequent oppression of African and African-descended people in the Americas throughout the centuries of the modern era, these people, whether intentionally or unintentionally, retained or adopted aspects of African indigeneity through linguistic and other practices.
As Western ontology requires Black lack of humanity, confirmed by a supposed lack of valuable linguistic, intellectual or spiritual practice, enslavement of these Africans required Western attempts to control, if not eradicate, linguistic and spiritual practice while simultaneously removing them from the lands of their scientific, literary, and historical traditions. Whether intentional preservation, or clinging to traditions and languages that represent home, the enslaved Africans and their children’s retentions of their cultural and linguistic traditions, even when hybridized, represent a resistance to White theft of their indigeneity, and thus, their humanity. While I, as a Black American, cannot claim links of indigeneity to any region in Africa or the Americas, the above scholars’ arguments are instructive: regardless of what I do or do not claim, Black American culture is, first and foremost, a hybrid attempt of our African ancestors’ efforts to protect their indigeneity and humanity within a society that required their de-indigenation and dehumanization. My home is nowhere: it was taken from my people; we do not remember where it is. I have no mental maps of a community an ocean away. However, I do feel a kinship with African-descended people around the world"
The takeaway I get from this and the other afro-pessimist readings is this
yes, Blackness/Brownness in the Americas is to some degree defined by the atrocities committed against African and Indigenous people AND there’s still beauty in these identities. The ability to preserve, adapt, and create culture is an act of resilience in the face of oppression and proof of humanity.