“A Better Blackness”: Authenticity, Identities, and the Southern Landscape

Zandria F. Robinson. This Ain't Chicago: Race, Class, and Regional Identity in the Post-Soul South, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014. 




This Ain’t Chicago: Race, Class, and Regional Identity in the Post-Soul South, Zandria F. Robinson discusses intersection of race, class, gender, and identity in Memphis in the present moment. She focuses on the region because it “sits at the physical, temporal, and epistemological intersection of rural and urban, soul and post-soul, and civil rights and post-civil rights” (3). Similar to E. Patrick Johnson, she too interviews black southerners, those who have stayed as well as those who have returned. She also incorporates popular culture elements such as film, television, and hip-hop situated within the framework she refers to as country cosmopolitanism to explore black identities and southern spaces. This narrative is encompassed in five chapters. In chapter one, using film, music, and writers, myths and depictions of Southern black identities are presented. Chapter two she elaborates on the theoretical concept of country cosmopolitanism that points to the paradoxical nature of blackness in America which echoes DuBois’ concept of double consciousness. In chapter three discusses how race and racism shape black identity in Memphis as well as across the south after legalized racial discrimination supposedly ended. In chapter four, she explores how country cosmopolitanism and regionality shaped gender norms and roles. The final chapter examines how the intersectionality of region, nativity, and social class shape black identity.
One aspect that really sticks out to me is the notion of authenticity. It takes me back to my research on the Gullah/Geechee culture and the Sea Islands. As I recall, many of the elders within the community saw themselves as representing the most authentic African American identity in America. For them, tracing their roots back to Africa and remaining on lands their imported African ancestors arrived on was and still is crucial to their to maintaining their identity, heritage, and distant homelands. Robinson mentions Daughters of the Dust, a film I discussed in my Master’s thesis. In the film, family members return to a fictitious Sea Island in South Carolina for a day to celebrate certain members leaving the island for good. This return migration as well as out migration is representative of disconnections and reconnections to the Sea Islands and Africa. There are family members who chose to disconnect themselves from the islands, arguing that the old ways are played out and not wanting to pass along religious and cultural traditions often referred to as Africanisms and continuities. While the South has been depicted as an optimal space for (re)connecting African Americans with their roots, it also has been a space that reminds them of poverty and unemployment hence the reasons for outmigration from the Sea Islands especially for younger generations. The disconnection is also representative in not having been to Africa. The matriarch of the family represents the (re)connection to the island and Africa as she tells stories and hold onto as well as pass along religious and cultural traditions to members especially those leaving the island so they may take the south and Africa with them wherever they may go. In her article, “Enchanted Memories of Regional Difference in African American Culture, anthropologist Paulla Ebron argues that the Sea Islands “have become a significant site of meaning in African American cultural history…a powerful site of ‘remembered’ African American community.” The elders, usually the matriarch, the griot of the family and/or community use oral histories to (re)connect and strengthen family member’s ties to geographically distant landscapes, more specifically certain villages in West Africa.
Robinson outlines three tenets associated with a native black identity. These tenets relate to the Gullah/Geechee community specifically. The first involves the enslavement of ancestors in the American South. In Gullah, the popular term “bin yah” translates into been here. This term is used when conjuring up stories and memories of enslavement of ancestors in Africa to the American South. The authenticity of these recollections is questioned as stories are passed down. It becomes an issue of history versus memory. How do these memories measure up to the history of events? The second tenet deals with experiences in the Jim Crow South. For the Gullah community, isolation on the islands did not disconnect them from Jim Crow. If anything, Jim Crow reinforced segregation on the islands as developers snatched up huge parcels of lands and cut off access to water and food, which further disenfranchised and impoverished already poor, marginalized Sea Island communities. The third tenet is the tradition of resistance embodied in religion. In Gullah communities, religion was used and in many instances still used as a means of daily resistance. Using syncretism of religion, elements of Christianity such as Protestantism with African traditions such as conjure and spirit possessions are incorporated as a means of resistance. As a result of these tenets, emerged crucial cultural elements that are embodied in music styles like gospel, blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, and soul. The performance tradition of the ring shout has been credited for influencing and laying the foundation for all of these styles of music, which reinforces the argument that Gullah and Geechee identities are native, authentic, or better black identities.   

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