I wrote two commentaries about my perspective of the economic reality of the St. Louis region, “100 of years decline and us” and “Why we’re not like Atlanta,” to illustrate a point about the importance of context. If you want to understand why St. Louis is what it is today, you have to understand what I’d call the macro forces that influence the ecosystem of St. Louis. I’d say the same is true for us, the black community of St. Louis and America.
This is what I was alluding to when I wrote we’re not the people we used to be. We have the tendency to think of ourselves in constant terms (all people do, really) because the current reality is the only reality we’ve ever experienced. But the black community of today is the product of a cultural evolution that spans 400 years in North America. In order to understand why we’re struggling to develop a consensus on a political and public policy agenda that speaks to our collective interests, you need to know why we are who we are today. That requires an understanding of the context of the black experience in America.
The United States really is a country of immigrants. Historically, the bulk of the American population was composed of European immigrants who voluntarily came to America in search of not just a better life but a new life. They brought with them their European identities and cultures, but after a few generations these identities were erased and their ancestral cultures were absorbed into a homogenized American culture. They gave up their specific European national identities and became white Americans.
Until 1965, when passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act changed the demographic destiny of America, the preceding was always true except for two notable historical exceptions. Native Americans were the indigenous population of North America, but the genocide perpetrated by European immigrants decimated their numbers and the reservation system made them marginalized prisoners in their own land. And then there’s us.
In a perverse way we’re also American immigrants, except we didn’t choose to come to here. We were forcibly brought here for the sole purpose of providing labor for America’s early stage capitalist development. While the institution of slavery is as old as human history, what was done to enslaved Africans in America was uniquely evil. They lost not just their freedom and the benefit of their labor, but were robbed of their historical identities and even the very idea of themselves as human beings.
The context for understanding the black community of today begins with recognition and acceptance of this historical reality. The question is: How do we access and comprehend this historical reality in a way that enhances our understanding of our contemporary circumstances? From my perspective, the black experience in America can be divided into three clearly defined periods.
From 1619 to 1864, I refer to as our Period of Enslavement. The second period, from 1865 to 1965, is Post-Civil War. The third period, the one in which we currently live, is Post-Civil Rights. These historical periods have unique characteristics that differentiate them from each other, but are part of a continuum that contextualizes the black experience in America.
The Italian philosopher and politician Benedetto Croce said, "All history is contemporary history," meaning the study of the past is always connected to our need to understand and rationalize our current circumstances. In 1619, disparate groups of people from the continent of Africa were forcibly brought to North America; this is where the contemporary history of today’s black community begins.
There’s a joke that explains why this commentary is ending at this point. A writer is asked, “What’s your column about this week?” His answer: “About 650 words.” Whatever I write about, I have to be able to say it in about 650 words or 650 words at a time.
Mike Jones is a former senior staffer in St. Louis city and county government and current member of the Missouri State Board of Education and The St. Louis American editorial board. In 2016, he was awarded Best Serious Columnist for all of the state’s large weeklies by the Missouri Press Association.