Two hundred years after the birth of Abraham Lincoln, and one hundred years after the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, what does the Obama presidency mean for the identity of Black Americans within the United States? It means that an interracial vision of the United States is emerging, one where "Black is no longer a country," the historian Deborah Gray White argued recently at Rutgers-Newark. Black American identity is not determined strictly by race, but by other factors such as gender, sexuality, religion and class.
All of this, she argued in the 29th Annual Marion Wright Thompson Lecture, is part of a struggle toward an integrated United States that was embraced haltingly by Lincoln and enthusiastically by the NAACP. But that quest was long thwarted by racism and segregation, which forced Black people to construct their own parallel institutions to sustain themselves in a hostile environment. Of course, Black people never lived just by reacting to whites. But they built up their own communities with their own definitions. Today, however, the boundaries around Black communities are more porous than before. What that means is yet to be worked out.
White traces the origins of the present moment to the Million Man and Million Mom marches of the 1990s. She interprets them not as signs of monolithic unity, but as searches for solidarity in a time of changing racial identity and leadership. She concludes that these marches, where gays and women demanded a presence, were a sign that the old unity of Black America was in short supply. Race lost the unifying power that it had a century ago.
White's insightful lecture brought to mind a point that Peter made earlier on this blog: that great historic events change our way of looking at the past. Surely the Obama presidency will set off all sorts of ruminations on what his election tells us about the nation that elevated him to its highest office. That will set historians to searching for the roots of Obama's multi-racial electoral coalition. And inevitably, that will tell us new and surprising things about the significance of race in the United States. Deborah Gray White's presentation was a good effort at leading us in this new direction.