How the great influx of people from Africa and the Caribbean since 1965 is challenging what it means to be African-American
By Ira Berlin SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE February 2010
… [a] knot of black men and women—most of them technicians at the station—were talking about emancipation and its meaning. Once I was drawn into their discussion, I was surprised to learn that no one in the group was descended from anyone who had been freed by the proclamation or any other Civil War measure. Two had been born in Haiti, one in Jamaica, one in Britain, two in Ghana, and one, I believe, in Somalia. Others may have been the children of immigrants. While they seemed impressed—but not surprised—that slaves had played a part in breaking their own chains, and were interested in the events that had brought Lincoln to his decision during the summer of 1862, they insisted it had nothing to do with them. Simply put, it was not their history.
And so the “not my history” disclaimer by people of African descent seemed particularly pointed—enough to compel me to look closely at how previous waves of black immigrants had addressed the connections between the history they carried from the Old World and the history they inherited in the New.
Elizabeth Keckly, Dressmaker and Confidante to Mary Todd Lincoln
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley ( February 1818 – May 1907) was a former slave who became a successful seamstress, civil rights activist, and author in Washington, DC. She was best known as the personal modiste and confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln, the First Lady. Keckley had moved to Washington in 1860 after buying her freedom and that of her son in St. Louis. She created an independent business in the capital based on clients who were the wives of the government elite. Among them were Varina Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis; and Mary Anna Custis Lee, wife of Robert E. Lee. After the Civil War, Keckley wrote and published an autobiography, Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House(1868). It was both a slave narrative and a portrait of the First Family, especially Mary Todd Lincoln, and is considered controversial for breaking privacy about them. It was also her claim as a businesswoman to be part of the new mixed-race, middle-class that was visible among the leadership of the black community. Read more HERE.
There are as many different kinds of war stories as there are people who have been called to fight. There are inspirational war stories, gruesome war stories, sad war stories. But in all of them, necessitated by the very nature of war, there’s some kind of sacrifice. Understanding those sacrifices and why they were made can change the way we see the whole history of war — and of ourselves.
At least, that’s how NYU professor and journalist Yvonne Latty sees it. Her father was a veteran, but it was not until after his death, as she worked on the 2004 book We Were There: Voices of African American Veterans, from World War II to the War in Iraq, that she was able to reframe the stories he had told her during her childhood. She came to understand more deeply how the sacrifices made by African Americans who had served in the U.S. military affected the opportunities that she herself would have in civilian life. She also saw how that deeper understanding could change the way she, and other people of color, saw the world.