Essay: Identity, and black identity issues

In recent years, people working in a remarkable area of social science and humanities disciplines have taken interest in questions concerning identity. Within political science, for example, we find the concept of ‘identity’ at the center of lively debates in every major subfield. Students of American politics have devoted much new research to the ‘identity politics’ of race, gender and sexuality. Compared to recent scholarship in history and the humanities, however, political scientists remain laggards when it comes to work on identities. Due to influences ranging from Michel Foucault to the debate on multiculturalism, the historical and cultural construction of identities of all sorts has lately been a preoccupation for both social historians and students of literature and culture.
Despite this increased and broad-ranging interest in ‘identity’, the concept itself remains something of an enigma. What Phillip Gleason (1983) observed 15 years ago remains true today: ‘the meaning of ‘identity’ as we usually use it is not well captured by dictionary definitions, which reflect older senses of the word.’ Our present idea of ‘identity’ is a fairly social construct, and a rather complicated one. Even though everyone knows how to use the word properly in everyday discourse, it proves quite difficult to give a short and adequate summary statement that captures the range of its present meanings. Given the centrality of the concept to so much recent research ‘ and especially in social science where scholars take identities both as things to be explained and things that have explanatory force ‘ this amounts almost to a scandal. At a minimum, it would be useful to have a concise statement of the meaning of the word in simple language that does justice to its present intension.
This is the main purpose of this paper, to distill a statement of the meaning of ‘identity’ from an analysis of current usage in ordinary language and social science discourse. The main results are easily stated, although a fair amount of work on alternative possibilities will be required to reach them. I argue that ‘identity’ is presently used in two linked senses, which may be termed ‘social’ and ‘personal.’ In the former sense, an ‘identity’ refers simply to a social category, a set of persons marked by a label and distinguished by rules deciding membership and (alleged) characteristic features or attributes. In the second sense of personal identity, an identity is some distinguishing characteristic (or characteristics) that a person takes a special pride in or views as socially consequential but more-or-less unchangeable.
Thus, ‘identity’ in its present incarnation has a double sense. It refers at the same time to social categories and to the sources of an individual’s self-respect or dignity. There is no necessary linkage between these things. In ordinary language, at least, one can use ‘identity’ to refer to personal characteristics or attributes that cannot naturally be expressed in terms of a social category, and in some contexts certain categories can be described as ‘identities’ even though no one sees them as central to their personal identity. Nonetheless, ‘identity’ in its present incarnation reflects and evokes the idea that social categories are bound up with the bases of an individual’s self-respect. Arguably much of the force and interest of the term derives its implicit linkage of these two things.
Of course, one can find brief definitions and clarifications in many places. These run the gamut, from suggestive glosses to some fairly complicated and opaque formulations. Here are some examples, culled mainly but not exclusively from the areas I read most in (political science, international relations):
1. Identity is ‘people’s concepts of who they are, of what sort of people they are, and how they relate to others’ (Hogg and Abrams 1988, 2).
2. ‘Identity is used in this book to describe the way individuals and groups define themselves and are defined by others on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, language, and culture’ (Deng 1995, 1).
3. Identity ‘refers to the ways in which individuals and collectivities are distinguished in their social relations with other individuals and collectivities’ (Jenkins 1996, 4).
4. ‘National identity describes that condition in which a mass of people have made the same identification with national symbols ‘ have internalised the symbols of the nation …’ (Bloom 1990, 52).
5. Identities are ‘relatively stable, role-specific understandings and expectations about self’ (Wendt 1992, 397).
6. ‘Social identities are sets of meanings that an actor attributes to itself while taking the perspective of others, that is, as a social object. … [Social identities are] at once cognitive schemas that enable an actor to determine ‘who I am/we are’ in a situation and positions in a social role structure of shared understandings and expectations’ (Wendt 1994, 395).
7. ‘By social identity, I mean the desire for group distinction, dignity, and place within historically specific discourses (or frames of understanding) about the character, structure, and boundaries of the polity and the economy’ (Herrigel 1993, 371).
8. ‘The term [identity] (by convention) references mutually constructed and evolving images of self and other’ (Katzenstein 1996, 59).
9. ‘Identities are … prescriptive representations of political actors themselves and of their relationships to each other’ (Kowert and Legro 1996, 453).
10. ‘My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose’ (Taylor 1989, 27).
11. ‘Yet what if identity is conceived not as a boundary to be maintained but as a nexus of relations and transactions actively engaging a subject’? (Clifford 1988, 344).
12. ‘Identity is any source of action not explicable from biophysical regularities, and to which observers can attribute meaning’ (White 1992, 6).
13. ‘Indeed, identity is objectively defined as location in a certain world and can be subjectively appropriated only along with that world. … [A] coherent identity incorporates within itself all the various internalized roles and attitudes.’ (Berger and Luckmann 1966, 132).
14. ‘Identity emerges as a kind of unsettled space, or an unresolved question in that space, between a number of intersecting discourses. … [Until recently, we have incorrectly thought that identity is] a kind of fixed point of thought and being, a ground of action … the logic of something like a ‘true self.’ … [But] Identity is a process, identity is split. Identity is not a fixed point but an ambivalent point. Identity is also the relationship of the Other to oneself’ (Hall 1989).
The range, complexity, and differences among these various formulations are remarkable. In part, the differences reflect the multiple lineages that ‘identity’ has within the academy. Different research traditions ‘ influenced variously by symbolic interactionism, role theory, Eriksonian psychology, social identity theory, and postmodernism, have evolved somewhat different conventions regarding the term.
Perhaps some of these authors intend to stipulate a definition of ‘identity’ appropriate or useful for their specific purposes, so some variation might be expected with varying purposes. Nonetheless, it is also striking that the definitions seem to refer to a common underlying concept. Almost every one evokes a sense of recognition, so that none seems obviously wrong, despite the diversity. This is also to be expected, because ‘identity’ has for some time now been a staple of ordinary language.
Regardless of particular research traditions or purposes, it would be very strange to offer a definition of ‘identity’ that bore no relation to what we already intuitively understand by the concept. There is an important and more general point to be made here about the definition of social science concepts. In contrast to many areas in the natural sciences, in social science most of our key concepts either derive from or enter into ordinary language. Power, rationality, democracy, ethnicity, race, the state, and even politics are examples.
I will write especially about race and about black identity.


In the history of research on Black identity, scholars have defined and operationalized the concept in many different ways. The earliest sociological research on Black identity focused on the racial preferences and self-identification of children. Early studies used photographs, drawings, or dolls representing Black and White children to study the concept. The child’s choice of object (Black or White) was taken to indicate a preference for or self-identification with the corresponding racial group. In this early research the authors concluded that Black children had a more negative orientation to their own race than White children.
During the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, researchers critiqued these early studies and developed a new paradigm of Black identity that stressed its resilience despite oppression used a different definition of Black identity. He focused on the process of Black identity change across an individual’s life course; he termed this process ‘nigrescence.’ Nigrescence is a ‘resocializing experience; it seeks to transform a preexisting identity (a non-Afrocentric identity) into one that is Afrocentric’.
There was argued that Black identity is a multidimensional concept that encompasses a wider array of feelings than simply closeness to other Blacks. They expanded the concept to include not only feelings of closeness, but also Black separatist sentiments, which they define as ‘commitment to African culture and the degree to which Blacks should confine their social relationships to other Blacks,’ and racial group evaluation, which is a general measure of a respondent’s positive or negative evaluation of Black people as a group
It was argued that Black identity is complex and multidimensional and has been oversimplified. In their study they separate feelings of closeness to other Blacks into closeness to elite Blacks, closeness to the masses, and closeness to the rebels. Some works examine characteristics of society, the state, and the group itself that affect the macro-level construction of Black identity. They conceptualize Black identity as the society-wide meaning attached to the racial category ‘Black.’
Clearly, conceptualizations of Black identity are not uniform across academic disciplines. The characterization of Black identity as a process (e.g. nigrescence) is more prevalent in the counseling and cross-cultural psychology literature. In the past century we have gained much valuable knowledge about the racial identity of African Americans. Researchers examined black identity at both the micro- and macro-levels, and determined individual and social characteristics correlated with Black identity. However, there are several ways those studying Black identity can improve the literature.
First, the substantial body of quantitative study of Black identity is not matched with qualitative in-depth research on the topic. With a few notable exceptions,6 scholars have not used qualitative methods to explore the ways in which African Americans understand their racial identity. Another improvement, albeit a more difficult one to attain, is to complete research using more recent data. Much of the work in the field uses the first wave of the National Survey of Black Americans (data gathered in 1979 and 1980).
Research using later waves of the survey or other more recent data would greatly improve the literature. Many young Black adults today never experienced the Civil Rights or Black Power movements, as did those interviewed in the NSBA. It would certainly be beneficial to investigate the identity experiences of these younger adults. Further, it would be valuable to update the information gathered at earlier points in time on adults who did live through these social movements.
Finally, researchers in this field need to focus on the development of theory. The empirical research has produced a large set of facts about African American identity, but very little theory in which to contextualize these facts. This tradition of research is a ripe area for scholars to theorize about factors that affect Black identity at both the micro- and macro-levels.


The term Afro-American as a literary genre started to be considered from the so-called
Harlem Renaissance at the beginning of the twentieth century; in fact, Harlem Renaissance can be considered as the spring of Afro-American voice: it was the moment in which scholars started to revive all the forgotten texts written by American Blacks, considering them within the frame of a literary tradition rooted in the time of slavery. In this way, this new perspective intends to articulate a new concept in literature in which the Black voice plays a role.
The great problem with Harlem Renaissance is that, in its approach, it tends not only to ignore but, in fact, to reject explicitly the role of woman in Afro-American tradition. The reason for this ignorance of the Black-woman cause, focusing only Black-male repression through History, is clearly expressed by B. Hooks:

‘Oppression of black men during slavery has been described as de-masculinization for the
same reason that virtually no scholarly attention has been given to the oppression of black
women during slavery. Underlying both tendencies is the sexist assumption that the
experiences of men are more important than those of women and that what matters most
among the experiences of men is their ability to assert themselves patriarchally.'(Hooks,
1982: 22)
The feeling that the female black experience through History is reflected in black women’s literary production is also shared by many other specialists in this field .From the rediscovery of black feminine voice, it’s the black woman who has the power of defining herself without the distortion of male and/or white perspective. The flourishing of black woman’s voice implies, then, that she has the control over her own image and she now knows this new power.
In the past and depending on who held the pen, black women have almost exclusively in terms of negative and regressive stereotypes . Black women are themselves in the front of reclaiming their own womanhood, and the arena where their invisibility and
misrepresentation is played out is the novel. The novels, essays and poems of Maya Angelou, Toni Cade Bambara, Zora Neale Hurston, Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Ntozake Shange, Alice Walker and Sherley Anne Williams, with their powerful celebration of maternal presence, have been instrumental in opening up the historically and distinct world of black women.

The act of writing down their experiences and the act of reading their own literature are mutual acts of empowerment. In fact, Black Women History is a history of Self empowerment in a fight against external forces trying to silence their own voice. And this
fight has not been an easy one since it implied to struggle against a double discrimination,
racism and sexism.
On the one hand, identity has been denied to black women because of racism. Blacks in a white American society were considered as mere objects during slavery and afterwards it took a long time to consider them as equal; when the Feminist movement began, it didn’t include black women because of their colour. Black women have had the feeling, then, that ‘white women liberation did not challenge this sexist-racist practice; they continued it.’ (Hooks, 1982: 8). So, the first problem that the black woman faces is that society ‘denies the existence of non-white women in America.’ (Hooks, 1982; 8)
On the other hand, black women’s identity has also been denied because of Sexism. Slavery has been considered as a Black male phenomenon, regarding Black women as biological functionaries whose destinies are rendered ephemeral- to lay their eggs and die. Therefore, the emancipation movements from the end of the American Civil War have been seeking the equality between white people and black men since black men were not able to risk their chances including women in their enterprise. (Hook, 1982: 1)
Consequently, the yearnings of Afro-American women have been frustrated by the double stigma ‘non-white, non-man’ and their main struggle has been to seek for a definition of themselves according to positive characteristics and not according to what they lack (either blackness or masculinity). This frustration feeling has been a characteristic in the female Afro-American tradition:

‘When I was in the third grade I wanted to be president. I can still remember the striken look of my teacher’s face when I announced it in class. By the time I was in the fourth grade I have decided to be the president’s wife instead. It never occurred to me that I could be neither because I was Black.’ (Wallace, 1982: 5)

One of the many alternatives opted by the Afro-American woman to build up her own identity has been the literary production. During the slavery period, being able to write and read meant freedom and active rebellion for a Negro; it also meant a way of saying aloud metaphorically what was forbidden to say aloud in practice. In fact, the black woman has found in writing a place on her own through which she can fulfil her ambitions and express her emotions without the white and/or masculine trace. Therefore, we cannot consider black women’s writings as mere fiction since’ there is an inherente Black woman identification in the Black female literary tradition (…) black women have used writing as a way of capturing and exalting their experiences.’ (Brethel, 1982: 185)
African American Literature constitutes one of the supreme enrichments of the ‘black women’ and ‘black life’. The literature of the ‘black people’ is a composite of what is known coming from the unknown. The black women have been involved in the development of African- American writing since its inception. Their perspective is faithful to the actual experiences of the black women in North America. Among the women writers one of the most prolific black American women writers is Alice Walker. She is known not only for her classic novel The Color Purple but for her rediscovery of an earlier African ‘American women novelist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. She is also known for her activism in causes like environmentalism, spirituality, racial justice and women’s issues and against female circumcision. Walker in order to describe the lives of the black women within her community , has created on of the most striking protagonists who, like their predecessors is concerned about the past and at the same time, are different from them, and who believe in the survival of the whole people.
Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple and renowned womanist, uses a color analogy to describe the women of two movements that are the foundation of women’s rights and equality.
In her novel The Color Purple she brings out the especial Blackness of the novel. It may be
called a ‘painterly novel’ casting its narratives in terms of spectrum of colours in Black
Women lives. Feminism is often the first and most prominent ideology that we all think about concerning the women’s rights movement. Considering the fight for women’s rights from the 1800’s through the Civil Rights Movement of the 50’s and 60’s to present day, womanism includes an extension beyond the boundaries of race and class.
It integrates the needs of women who may have faced additional societal biases throughout the evolving history of the movement. Womanism considers a woman’s culture, family, and spirituality.
There are greater and more specific differences to each perspective, and a range of views within them, but overall there remains unity across the ideologies. Women from both schools of thought have marched together, sat with Presidents, and met with policy makers to fight for women’s rights. All labels aside, at the end of the day, each school of thought supports equality for women in our professional and personal lives.
The novel is written in two voices. One is addressed to god, i.e. Celie the main narrator’s naive addressed or prayers to God and the other is Nettie’s who is Celie’s sister, in her letter from Olinka in Africa to Celie. This aspect of narrative brings to the fore the theme of repression of the voice, women and Black voice, and the breaking of silence.
Both Celie and Nettie in a way break their silence in their addresses, Celie’s to God, communicated in private and in confidence of solitude and Nettie’s to her sister. Both of which do not reach the addressee, one to the white God whose ironic (non)existence is linked to racial oppression and other, Nettie’s letter to Celie which are intercepted by Albert, Celie’s tyrannical husband who Stashes them away from Celie who thinks she has lost her sister. There is a comparison between God and Mr. Albert who plays god being male. The white God who silences Blacks’ stories and the Black Male who silences Black women’s voices. The White Mayor who slaps Sophie Celie’s spirited and rebellious daughter in law and then sends to jail because she refuses to become housemaid; and rapes Mary Agnes Squeak Harpo’s second wife to show her that she is not his kin, when she goes to speak for Sophie is comparable to Mr. Albert.
Racism and Sexism are expressed in the same forms of violence and subjugation.
The epistolary style in Walker’s novel recreates the mode used by slaves to denounce their
situation. The epistolary style is also an approach used traditionally by women to enter into
the literary field and to be able to enter the realm of literature by means of letters.

In The Color Purple, all the characters’ words are controlled by Celie’s supravoice having her, in this way, the power of manipulating their speeches. The only sentence that seems not to be under Celie’s control is the first one in the novel: ‘You better never tell anybody but God. I’d kill your mammy’. This sentence is heading the first page and, by extension, the whole novel. It’s precisely this threat what makes Celie silence her physical voice and look for a new voice through the written language.
The Color Purple is structured as a series of letters addressed, firstly, to God and, then, to Celie’s sister, Nettie. At the beginning, Celie describes the sexual abuse on her by the man she assumes to be her father and how she is given like an object to Mr.- the man who will be her husband:
‘She spoiled. Twice. (…).She ugly. (…).But she’ll make the better wife. She ain’t smart either.
(…). But she can work like a man.’
Celie has to bear ‘The exploitation of black women by black men’ (Stuart, 1988: 61) and her story will be the story of ‘a black woman empowered to reject the role of passive victim and become active agent in her own life, through her relationship with other women: sister, lover, daughter-in-law and friends’ (Stuart, 1988: 64).
The first and, probably, most influential woman in Celie’s life is her sister Nettie. They will be forced to be separated by her oppressive husband but, before leaving, Nettie encourages her to be active.
‘You got to fight. You got to fight.
But I don’t know how to fight. All I know how to do is to stay alive.’

Celie and Nettie promise each other to keep in contact by letter but Mr. – hides all the letters from Nettie and Celie’s only addressee (and hope) is God, so she writes to him. However, her relationship with God doesn’t give her courage to adopt an active attitude and it’s only useful to her since it helps her to bear her oppression:
‘I don’t say nothing. I think bout Nettie, dead. She fights, she run away. What good it do? I
don’t fight; I stay where I’m told. But I’m alive.’

At this stage of her life another woman influences on her life; it’s Sofia, the wife of Mr.-‘s son. Celie considers her as a model because she fights for her rights but Celie is not able to behave the same way:
‘I’m jealous of you. I say it cause you do what I can’t.
What that? She says
Fight. I say.’
But the great trigger for Celie to adopt an active attitude seems to be Shug Avery, her husband’s lover. Their relationship will be a very special one since Shug gives Celie the support to build up her own independent self:
‘She says this song I’m about to sing is called Miss Celie’s song (…) First time somebody
made something and named it after me.’
‘I won’t leave, she says, until I know Albert won’t even think about beating you’
With Shug, Celie speaks about sex and she is able to redefine her image of God ‘ from’old
and tall and greabearded and white’ (31) to a pantheistic God: ‘Dear God. Dear stars, dear
trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Dear God.’

Shug also helps her to find Nettie’s letters and ‘wear the pants’ (literally and metaphorically) and thanks to her, and to Nettie’s letters, Celie is able to react and speak:
(To Mr.-) ‘You a lowdown dog is what’s wrong, I say. It’s time to leave you and enter into
the creation. And your dead body just the welcome mat I need.’
From this moment on, Celie will be in control of her life being able to abandon her husband and work – precisely sewing pants-. Mr. – will try to intimidate her but now he won’t be able to humiliate her:
Mr.- ‘Look at you. You black, you pore, you ugly. You a woman. Goddam, he say, you
nothing at all.’
(Celie) ‘I’m pore, I’m black, I may be ugly and can’t cook, a voice say to everything
listening. But I’m here.’
Men in Celie’s life constantly prevent her from speaking and the act of writing down her feelings is a way of ‘shouting her rights in silence’. Writing, to Celie, is a tool to stay alive and, therefore, it’s as important to her as breathing:
‘Long as I can spell G-o-d I got somebody along’

To finish, I would like to point out the important idea, conveyed in the novel, that women’s power can even change men. Celie’s liberation is a positive one because it also means the liberation of other people from their badness. In this way, what is good for Celie is also good for her community and, therefore, she can reconcile with her previously hostile environment.
Celie is unable to hate Mr. – (‘I still don’t like frogs, but let us be friends’ and her attitude is a model for Mr.- who realizes that giving love and understanding he will receive the same:
(Mr.-) ‘The more I wonder, he say, the more I love.
(Celie) And people start to love you back, I bet, I say.
(Mr.-) they do, he say, surprise. Harpo seem to love me. Sofia and the children. I think even ole evil Henrietta love me a little bit…’
Celie’s power, therefore, makes women more man-like (since they have opinion and they ‘wear pants’), men more woman-like (Mr. – learns to sew) and, in doing so, it also makes both more complete, more human.

Women struggle everyday against discrimination: color, gender, illiteracy, violence, insecurity, lack of equal opportunities; the list is long and bleak. Celie is an example of an African-American woman exerting her right of self-defining. She represents any black woman’s experience but, above all, her own. Her voice stands for a whole community but, at the same time, she also claims her right of speaking as an individual voice.
Her experience is similar to that of many other black women: she had to bear the same type of discrimination, being always ‘the other’ (the non- white and the non- man.) and she finds her path towards her own self through the written language.

Therefore, Celie is, above all, an individual searching for her place in society. In the same way, Alice Walker is also female Afro-American but, most of all, a writer searching for her place in literature; and the great popularity of her book together with the Pulizer Prize for Fiction in 1983 to The Color Purple confirm that she has found that space.

Being part of two marginalized groups historically deemed inferior, Black females figured in a distinctive way different from either Black men or White women. They were ascribed peculiar derogatory images that were the legacy of a long-lived racism and sexism. Myths perpetuated by Whites and long underpinning the image of Blacks might contain common elements for Black females and males as their experiences were two sides of the same coin and influenced each other. However, standing on the nexus of American race and sex ideologies, Black women were doubly discredited.
Racial and discriminatory representations of Black womanhood which had roots in the antebellum era evolved around four central figures: the ‘inept domestic servant’ (the mammy), the domineering matriarch, the sex object (the Jezebel), and the tragic mulatto. Drawing on some works by Black female writers and Blacks’ racial uplift strategy between the 1890s and the 1930s, this article delineates the distorted conceptualization of Black women, and the way it molded their identities. It will primarily map out three of these images namely the mammy, the Jezebel, and the tragic mulatto.
The bipolar conceptualization of Black and White womanhood assigned Black women all the negative traits of disgrace whereas White women were attributed all the idealized aspects of ‘true womanhood’, such as piety, deference, domesticity, passionlessness, chastity, cleanness and fragility. Conversely, Black women were conceived and pictured as primitive, lustful, seductive, physically strong, domineering, unwomanly and dirty. There was a breadth of stereotypical perceptions of Black women, which placed them outside the enclave of delicacy, femininity, respectability and virtue. As Patricia Morton suggests, ‘all except Mammy had profoundly derogatory, dehumanizing characterization.’
There is also observed black women’s enslavement and the construction of stereotypes. In fact the old slave mammy or ‘Aunt jemima’ figure pervaded a body of writings about Black womanhood. She was generally dark-skinned, strong-bodied, thick-lipped, obese and ugly.
Despite the desexualized image projected onto the mammy, which contradicted that of the Jezebel, both figures simultaneously underpinned the American mind.Unlike mammy, the Jezebel was a middle-aged or young woman governed by her libido. The stereotypical representation that went hand in hand with the Jezebel image was that of the seductress. Black women, paricularly light-skinned ones, who could pass gor whites sometimes, were in white women’s opinion able to overpower the White man’s will to resist their allure. Whether as a depraved oran an elevated mulatto, a mammy or a Jezebel, a bonds woman or a free woman, the image of the blac woman was conditioned by whites patriarchal values. If blac men’s psychological masculinity was undoubtely restored and their images were improved, black females identity remained pictured in a negative light.

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