Diaspora

“Diaspora” is a contested term. The African diaspora is, like the nation, an “imagined community” (B. Anderson [1983] 2006) conceived of and performed based on imperfect memories, evidence, and agendas. As the historian Colin Palmer asserts, “In many respects, diasporas are not actual but imaginary and symbolic communities and political constructs; it is we who often call them into being” (2000, 29). Within Black studies literatures, diaspora is mobilized as a method in pursuit of collectives whose histories and cultures were/are otherwise hidden or forcibly taken as part of the development of Western epistemes (formal and informal) and the violences of chattel slavery and colonialism. Variously referred to as “Black,” “African” or a series of national monikers prefixed by a version of “Afro-­,” the actors who called for the African diaspora are loosely tied together by a recognition of indigenous Africa as origin as well as a relation to …

Empire

W. E. B. Du Bois famously declared that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-­line” (1903, vii). Du Bois’s words have been quoted extensively, and it would be hard to find a more cited passage in African American letters. Yet the proverbial problem, as it has been often cited from The Souls of Black Folk, has been routinely deployed as a prophetic observation principally concerned with the domestic plight of African Americans. Hard on the heels of the failures of Reconstruction, the persistence of white supremacy, and the legal codification of Jim Crow, “the color-­line” has remained an opening salvo for grappling with the conundrum of race and racial oppression on U.S. soil.

Yet, if one continues to read the adjoining words that follow Du Bois’s most famous utterance, one will note that his declaration extended far beyond the domestic confines of …

Family

Scholars of black life and culture have taken an interest in the notion of “family” from at least the turn of the twentieth century; W. E. B. Du Bois’s groundbreaking sociological study The Philadelphia Negro (1899) devoted a chapter to “the Negro Family,” which explored everything from typical urban family size (significantly smaller than families in rural areas), variations in family income and expenditures across classes, and details of family life, including various types of cohabitation and child rearing. Notes Du Bois, “The home was destroyed by slavery, struggled up after emancipation, and is again not exactly threatened, but neglected in the life of city Negroes” ([1899] 1996, 196). This emphasis on the deleterious consequences of slavery and plantation life for the black family forms a through line from Du Bois to later sociological and historical studies, perhaps most famously E. Franklin Frazier’s comprehensive The Negro Family

Gender

Derived from the Latin word genus, which refers to a race, class, or kind of something, “gender” shares its root word with concepts such as “genre,” “genealogy,” “genetics,” and “genius,” among others. Its etymology provides a partial context for how the term is frequently deployed to describe a finite system of types that are indexical of a bipartite model of sex to confer either a masculine or feminine designation. Among humans, and with an implied binaristic model of gender intact, gender is conceptualized as the product of a patriarchal ordering of difference invested in maintaining a relation of male dominance to female subordination. Although gender is colloquially used to refer to a generalizable typology to designate species into “men,” “women,” and sometimes “transgender” or nonbinary categories, such usage for black and blackened people is, at best, imprecise and, at worst, obscurant given gender’s arrangement with race and other modalities …

Race

What is race? Over time and space, many people have asked that very question. However, there is no universal definition or universally agreed-­on response to this query, largely because the concept of race, born out of Europe and disseminated across the globe, is a human invention.

“The term race,” argue the sociologist Karen Fields and the historian Barbara Fields (2012, 16) “stands for the conception or the doctrine that nature produced humankind in distinct groups, each defined by inborn traits that its members share and that differentiate them from the members of other distinct groups of the same kind but of unequal rank.” How race articulates through our “mental terrain” and infiltrates our belief system results from what these scholars refer to as “racecraft,” meaning “a kind of fingerprint evidence that racism has been on the scene” (18, 19). The anthropologist Jemima Pierre (2012, xii) locates “racecraft” in …

Religion

“Religion” has been used within African American studies to identify the sacred rituals, symbols, traditions, and worldviews to which black folks adhere and to distinguish them from the ordinary, informal, and nonsacred principles that structure black life. Inherent in the etymology of “religion” and its subsequent genealogy is its connection to formal, identifiable traditions. The word “religion” immediately invokes an organized system on which sacred beliefs are placed and subsequent behaviors are enacted. Within African American studies, this includes, most prominently, Christianity and, less popularly, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, African traditional religions (ATRs) such as Yoruba, Santería, and Candomblé, and African-­derived religions (ADRs) and folk traditions such as voodoo, conjure, and hoodoo.

It is impossible to understate the conceptual significance of religion—­the effervescent, ethereal, and expressive faiths—­to the experiences of African Americans. After all, whether called “African American religion” or, as interchangeably deployed here, “black religion,” the psychic, soulful expressions of …

Sexuality

“Sexuality,” the word and concept, emerges out of discourses that have produced both problematic and useful ways to understand black sexuality in all its complexities, contradictions, and expansiveness. In its most common understanding, sexuality is the quality of being sexual or possessing sex; it is understood as what one does in terms of sex acts and practices and who one is, often (inadequately) defined as heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual (Burgett 2007). Sexuality can be best understood, conceptually, as a category that entails desire, pleasure, practice, and more that interact with each other in complicated and often contradictory ways. Sexuality has also been used to denote sex assignment or male-­versus-­female differences, largely on the basis of genital and secondary sex characteristics and reproductive functions. It is a concept that has been applicable to the social organization and formation of human and nonhumans alike.

In a December 2012 essay in …

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