Mixed Race

“Mixed race” is an outcome of racial formation that has been variously defined in relation to blackness throughout the course of U.S. history. The development of slavery in the U.S. and elsewhere accounts for how mixed race has routinely been absorbed within the category of blackness. As reliance on indentured and slave labor grew in the colonies and states from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, the definition of blackness—­a social classification to which slaves were relegated—­expanded to absorb larger numbers of laboring, captive bodies. The rule of “hypodescent,” which is the basis for what is colloquially termed the “one-­drop” rule, refers to the means by which this expansion occurred.

In 1662, the colonial assembly in Virginia enacted a statute that deviated from English doctrine, which determined that children follow a patrilineal line of descent. According to Act XII of the statute, “Children got by a Englishman upon a Negro …

Nadir

“Nadir” can be a specific medical term that indicates the “minimum value of a fluctuating quantity” or an astronomical term that describes either “a point on the celestial sphere diametrically opposite some other point” or “the point on the celestial sphere diametrically opposite to the zenith and directly below the observer” (Oxford Universal Dictionary 1955). Yet “nadir” is perhaps most frequently used as an antonym for the more general sense of “zenith,” or “high point.” Put another way, “nadir” indicates the lowest point possible for a person or collective; it can identify the very worst moment of a particular era or situation as well. The English historian Henry Hallam (1777–­1859) used the term “nadir” during the early nineteenth century to refer to what he considered a particularly abysmal period in human history. In the first volume of Introduction to the Literature of Europe, in the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth

Nationalism

In the field of African American studies, the term “nationalism” is far more evocative than “advocacy or support for” the nation. Instead, it encompasses a rich history of Black political thought and resistance. Such nationalism focuses on the acquisition of a territorial homeland—­a nation—­but also Pan-­Africanism, a continental vision of African unity and Black consciousness. It has inspired a social, political, spiritual, and cultural identification with Blackness situated in a now largely discredited theory of racialism that genetically connected all Black peoples.

As long as nation-­states exist, “nationalism” as a keyword will have sociopolitical meaning. Until the dismantlement of imperial and colonial structures and until people can point to a distinct cultural heritage, the term will also have cultural currency. Debates, over Jerusalem and the occupied territory in the Middle East and the Baltic republics and Armenia and Azerbaijan in the former Soviet Union, for example, will always have meaning …

New Negro Renaissance

Formerly known as the “Harlem Renaissance,” the New Negro Renaissance was an era of cultural and political foment, exhilaration, and self-­generated “opportunity” among people of African descent as they gathered, through immigration and migration, in the world’s metropoles—­New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, London, Paris, even Tokyo—­in the decades leading up to and following World War I and continuing through World War II. The generation of African Americans and Afro-­Caribbean immigrants who came of age in this period proudly branded themselves “New Negroes,” signaling their modern, self-­determined distinction from the docility and dependence on white benefactors they saw in their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

Concentrating on the period’s literary production, which occurred in the U.S.’s new publishing center of New York City, and locating the inspiration for that production in the black enclaves that African American migrants and West Indian immigrants made for themselves in the northeastern portion …

Pan-Africanism

“Pan-­Africanism” denotes a variety of political and cultural movements that advocate solidarity among people of African descent. The term “pan-­African” was coined at the turn of the twentieth century and may designate, variously, alliances between all African countries, all people native to Africa, or all people of African heritage across the globe. Each strand has its own distinctive history, and the term’s relevance today lies in its potential to analyze the impasses in these histories and/or reanimate their goals in contemporary contexts. According to Google’s N-­gram tool, the use of the term peaked in the 1960s, coinciding with struggles for liberation and civil rights among people of African heritage and the establishment of formal structures to facilitate cooperation among newly independent African states. However, the term was first used among diasporic Africans, and its relevance for African American studies in an era of globalization is indicated by the resurgence of …

Passing

“Passing” is a word that has historically denoted a clandestine and hidden process, designed to leave no trace. Conventional wisdom is that few sources exist because those who passed carefully covered their tracks and left no record of their transgression. The term “passing” suggests a type of instability, a “moving through,” or the lack of a stable home or place. Passing was equated both with opportunity (access to white-­collar employment, better neighborhoods, a host of social courtesies) and with death (a forever severing from one’s family, friends, and communities).

It is likely that the word “passing” first appeared in print in advertisements for runaway slaves. Slave masters panicked about the possibility that some enslaved people might be able to “pass themselves off” as white and escape to freedom. Advertisements described enslaved people in exhaustive detail, sometimes noting that a particular slave could “sing a good song” or could speak a …

Performance

A staged public piece of theatrics or music comes immediately to mind when one thinks of the noun “performance”—­or perhaps, in everyday use, an exaggerated or fake show of oneself for others. In African American studies, the word has developed broader resonance to incorporate not only creative display, for better or worse, but also a complex way of knowing Black experience and ways of being. From disciplines such as theater and anthropology, “performance” comes into African American studies through attention to practice, to cultural resonances through time and communities, to transformation, and to Black creative virtuosity. The word “performance” and its uses announce African American studies’ concern with community, storytelling, memory (and its loss), action and activity, and experiences of Blackness. In this way, the term “performance,” in Black performance studies, offers the body, memory, and practice as bearer and keeper of knowledge, thus challenging the primacy of text. Performance …

Philosophy

“Philosophy,” conventional wisdom has it, began in Ancient Greece. A problem with that line of thinking, however, is that an accepted view is not necessarily a correct one. A moment’s reflection on the word, its history, and the political circumstances leading to its Euromodern reception should occasion a long pause. “Ancient Greeks,” for instance, are an invention of early modern Europe that gained much currency in the French and German Enlightenment to refer to ancient Greek-­speaking peoples of the Mediterranean. Those people included northern Africans, western Asians, and southern peoples of what became later known as Europe. As the presumption is that the earliest practice of philosophy was among the ancient Athenians, the term acquired a near sacred association with Hellenic peoples. Understanding that the Hellens were but one group among other Greek-­speaking peoples to have emerged in antiquity reveals the fallacy. It is as if to call English-­speaking peoples …

Poetics

“Poetics” refers to the practice and philosophy of poetry and its history. Poetics, broadly conceived, includes poetry, oratory, elocution, art, narrative, music, and performative visual and verbal power. As Aristotle avowed, poetics involves rhetoric, aesthetics, and ethics. A poetics is, implicitly or not, a politics; it functions strategically and socially. A theory of poetics, at core, involves presentation and representation (Halliwell 1998). Both formalist and formally innovative poetics evoke the human, natural, and supernatural world. In African American studies specifically, poetry and poetics have described and decried the inhumane conditions of chattel slavery.

The origin story of poetics in African American literary history includes slavery; it also exceeds it. Human bondage is the silt, though not the sum, of many African Americans’ lived experience historically. As Langston Hughes noted in his survey of more than “200 Years of American Negro Poetry,” “poets and versifiers of African descent have been publishing …

Police

The term “police” derives from polis, a Greek word meaning “city-­state.” In its original meaning, “police” refers to the state’s responsibility to protect public welfare. “Police” does not officially appear in the English language until the mid-­eighteenth century, when it is adapted from French, and it is not used colloquially to refer to the civil institution tasked with enforcing laws and detecting crime (“the police”) until the nineteenth century.

The word “police” does not appear in the U.S. Constitution, but the concept was discussed in contemporary writings on the function of government. In these writings, it was argued that the state’s police powers were analogous to the individual’s natural right to self-­defense. When individuals were attacked, they had the right to defend themselves, and when society was attacked, it had the same right to self-­defense by whatever means. Police powers were necessary to preserve the peace of society. Without …

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