The February 2020 event “The Depths of Black Silence” at the San Diego Public Library with the panelists Dr. Channon Miller, an assistant professor of history at USD, Dr. Cory Gooding, an assistant professor of political science, and V. Dozier, an assistant professor, and education librarian, addressed the themes from Michelle Norris’, The Grace of Silence, about silence, resistance, and oppression. The purpose of this event was to expose silence as an oppressive, or subjugating expectation of African Americans and also as a form of resistance. Further, they discussed respectability with consideration to shame and conceptions of black citizenship. The themes of silence and oppression are vital to our understanding of African American History in that they stress the importance of a self-defined African American identity and community within the dominant and oppressive white society as it is vital to the progression of civil rights for the African American community.
One of the pivotal moments during the event was the discussion of the notion of silence as a mechanism of oppression. The panelists emphasized that the state marginalizes the black population by imposing shame. With this stigmatizing, racial shame came as an expectation of their silence. Black silence is best exemplified in “Black Life and Culture During the Nadir” from the text, Freedom on My Mind. The text describes life during the Jim Crow period which began in the late 1870s and lasted until the 1950s and makes clear that Jim Crow comprised racial segregation and oppression of the African American community. There were a series of laws that created inequality among African Americans and whites in different aspects of living such as transportation, schools, restaurants, stores, and other public places. The establishment of segregation and “Colored Only” or “Whites Only” sections was a product of the supreme court case Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which, “declared Louisiana’s Separate Car Act constitutional and established the separate but equal legal doctrine that would protect segregation for more than half a century”. Not only did Jim Crow segregate public places, but it also aimed to control the minds of African Americans in that Jim Crow laws forced a system of racial etiquette in which African Americans were expected to act and embody shame in white spaces. This is evident in the mannerisms that the African American community was forced to learn during Jim Crow where it was expected of them to treat all whites as superior and that of higher wisdom even if the white person addressed is of a significantly younger age. Additionally, African Americans were expected to only speak when addressed and never out of turn in the presence of whites. For example, African Americans were expected to surrender the sidewalks to whites, remove their hats, and bow their heads. Additionally, African Americans were expected to address whites as “Mr.”, “Miss”, or “Mrs.” while in return they received nicknames such as “boy”, “girl”, “auntie”, or “uncle”. This system of racial etiquette established a reality that African Americans had to follow in order to survive. It was one that protected white supremacy, affirmed black subordination, and extended the practices from the plantation generation. Although the panel event spoke mostly of black silence in the present, black silence has been occurring for centuries. In terms of communication between African Americans and whites, this acts as a literal barrier in communication and prevents the development of the understanding of each other’s cultures, feelings, and quandaries. This is extremely problematic and detrimental to the progression of the African American community as it is hard to solve an issue where one side does not attempt to understand the other. Additionally, African Americans were not expected to speak out of turn or express themselves which leads to feelings of inadequacy and inferiority which as discussed in the program may even lead to suicide. Coupled with racial shame, the inability to express oneself and explore black identity within a space that sees Black life as worthy prevents the development of equality and the ability of African Americans to live in a world that is not only free in terms of legislation, but also socially, mentally, and emotionally.
Although legislation as a result of the Civil Rights Movement has improved since the Jim Crow period, black silence is still prevalent today. In “Reporting black and Brown L.A.: A Journalist’s View” from Black and Brown in Los Angeles: Beyond Conflict and Coalition by Josh Kun and Laura Pulido, the authors draw parallels between the African American community and the Latino community in L.A. in regards to their difficulties with racial inequality. The black subordination that began during the Middle Passage and that was further reinforced during Jim Crow has been cyclical and continues in the present. This is evident in the number of African American government officials in power. Frank Morris of Morgan State University and James Gimpel of the University of Maryland identify black silence and imply its structural enforcement, “ […] the state of black political power, […] is declining and not likely to reverse course, especially as Latinos remake black districts. ‘Morris is incensed not about this remaking but about the deafening silence of blacks on so many matters vital to their survival’”. Frank Morris speaks to black silence identifying that it is connected to their position socio-economic status and political vulnerability. These two factors only reinforce the continuation of black silence. Even in today’s society, it is extremely difficult for African Americans to gain positions in the government which can be attributed to the fact that the African American community is a minority population and treated as immigrants in their own nation. They also grapple with biases from white people in power. This lack of representation of African Americans in the government results in the withdrawal of funds from supportive programs such as counseling, therapy, civic groups, or other government programs for African American communities which only contributes further to the continuation of black silence. Without these supporting groups and programs, African Americans struggle with finding places to express their emotion, themselves, and the quest to embolden their identity within the dominant and oppressive white society. This is important to the understanding of black history as even though black history began during the Middle Passage and there has been progress in terms of legislation, the racism and discrimination that existed in the past is still prevalent today in an underlying manner. Forces committed to silencing this community remain. The resulting feelings of shame, inadequacy, and inferiority only strengthens the need for a community that allows for the expression of oneself. Within a strong and open community, African Americans may feel more comfortable expressing themselves which has the power to further the progress in identity formation which is vital in unifying, organizing, and maintaining black power and ultimately the progression of civil rights.
Over the years and with a plethora of resistance and unification there has been much progress in terms of civil rights for the African American community, but acts of racism and discrimination that promote shame and black silence still exist today as in 2019 in California there was a need to pass a piece of legislation on discrimination against people and their hairstyles at the workplace. Knowing that a common identifiable trait that links someone to African American heritage is curly or frizzy hair, recruiters whether subconscious or conscious, still made a note of the hairstyle and proceeded to discriminate against African Americans during the hiring process. Before the law was in place, African Americans would feel the need to straighten their hair and conform to the standards of white society or face unemployment. In the end, there are many contributing factors to feelings of inadequacy, shame, and inferiority within the African American community that, ultimately, results in black silence. The best way to combat this issue is to further develop and strengthen the black community as well as to create awareness within the white community of racist and discriminatory tendencies towards African Americans.
1.Kun, Josh, and Laura Pulido. Black and Brown in Los Angeles: Beyond Conflict and Coalition. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2014.
2.White, Deborah G., Mia Bay, and Waldo E. Martin. Freedom on My Mind: a History of African Americans, with Documents. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martins, 2017.
3.Willon, Phil, and Alexa Díaz. “California Becomes First State to Ban Discrimination Based on One’s Natural Hair.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, July 3, 2019. https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-pol-ca-natural-hair-discrimination-bill-20190703-story.html.