By Floyd Rose
In his 1999 address to the One in Christ conference at Abilene Christian University, Dr. Andrew Hairston said, "those who have the power to define you have the power to control you."
In 1619 when Africans first come to these shores, contrary to the circumstances which brought the adventuring pilgrim fathers, we were brought here against our will. Bound to each other, neck and foot, we came in chains. And for 244 brutal years, we were defined as slaves. We were confined to cotton fields and tobacco plantations, and thereby controlled by those who defined us.
In 1857, when a slave named Dred Scott escaped his chains in the South and fled North, he was captured and returned to his former master. When he sued for his freedom, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that "no black man (African) had any rights that any white man was bound to respect." We were confined by those who defined us.
Following the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, we were redefined. We were called colored people. And in the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision in 1875, the nation's highest court decided that "separate but equal" was the law of this land. For another 100 years the emphasis was on the separate: never the equal. Separate did not just mean unequal, it meant inferior.
What we received was always less than. "Colored only" restrooms, "colored only" water fountains, "colored only" dining rooms, "colored only" beauty and barber shops. Our place in American society was identified by our color. After all, we were "colored people." Those who had the power to define us had the power to confine and control us. Fleecy locks and black complexion did, indeed, determine our place in public accommodations, transportation and education.
The early sixties, we were redefined again. The "colored" designation gave way to Negro." The term itself was a badge of degradation. It meant not only black in Spanish and Portuguese, but the "Ne" prefix meant "no not ever." The "gro" meant growth. The meaning of Negro was to never grow. From slave to free men, to colored, to Negro, it was never intended that we grow politically, economically or socially.
In the mid 1960s Malcolm X stood on a Harlem street corner and said, "you're not Negroes, you're black. And black is beautiful. It is beautiful to be black. Be proud of your thick lips, your broad nose and kinky hair." "After all," he told us, "whites don't have a monopoly on either brawn or brains. Your ice is just as cold, your sugar is just as sweet, your medicine is just as strong, and your leaders are just as wise. Stand up, black man, stand up." And we stood up. Dressed in our disheki's and sporting our afros, we redefined who we were. This was the beginning of our introspection and further redefinition of who we are.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the definition changed again. We became African Americans-Africans in America. Just as there are Irish-Americans, Polish-Americans, Spanish-Americans, German-Americans, and Jewish-Americans, etc., we are African-Americans, the product of our African heritage and American experience.
Our history has been shaped by both.
Slavery, segregation, racial discrimination is the story of America. Survival is the story of African Americans. Just as the strongest among us survives the past, our best and brightest will survive the present and help shape the future. Since others can no longer define us, they will no longer control us.
Rose is a Valdosta resident and a local civil rights activist.
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