Rachel Ida Buff is an Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee and the History
Coordinator in Comparative Ethnic Studies.
Responding to the ongoing controversy about his minister, Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama in his speech, â€śA More Perfect Unionâ€? last Tuesday opened up a teachable moment about race and American history.
Drawing heavily on the cadences of the Declaration of Independence, Obama illuminated the rhetorics of the Black church.
In the speech, Obama drew on his own writings, in Dreams from My Father, to describe his conversion to Christianity in the Black church:
I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion's den, Ezekiel's field of dry bones. Those stories - of survival, and freedom, and hope - became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world.
This story is a religious conversion narrative. But it is also a story about the Americanization of â€śthe son of a Black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas,â€? as Obama explains his history.
Immigration historians have much to teach about Americanization. We talk about pressures on new immigrants to acculturate; about the idea and the realities of assimilation; about the ways in which immigrants and their children create an ethnic culture based on, yet distinct from, the cultures from which they came. Drawing on the vibrant literature of the past twenty years, we discuss the inequalities generated by race and immigration policy, and the complexities of â€śbecoming Americanâ€? for people with less than equal access to the full rights of citizenship in this country. Because terms like Americanization come out of a literature based on the experience of people we might now call, with David Roediger, â€śnot yet white ethnicsâ€?, perhaps we tend less to theorize what Americanization means for immigrants who, because of law and history, do not become white.
A disciplinary gap divides African American and immigration history. For this reason, the Middle Passage, which comprised one of the largest migrations in human history, is not considered as migration. Because enslaved Africans were forced to leave their homes, their experiences during and after the Middle Passage differ from those proposed by an immigrant paradigm based on voluntary migration from Europe. So do those of migrants from Asia and Latin America. But their lives, and the lives of their children in America, are also stories of Americanization.
African America is increasingly diverse. In states such as Florida and New York, foreign born Blacks comprise up to a quarter of the African American population. For the million foreign born Africans residing in the United States as of 2002, becoming American will entail legal naturalization, for some; for all of them, it will involve the balancing of transnational allegiances â€“ what historian Matthew Frye Jacobson has brilliantly describes as the â€śspecial sorrowsâ€? of immigrants with deep political ties to their homelands â€“ and the acculturation necessary to survive and flourish in this country. Becoming African American invariably means encountering the withering realities of American racism. And understanding this racism, its long history on this continent, often calls for powerful language, like that of Jeremiah Wright and the prophetic tradition in preaching he represents.
In this teachable moment, immigration historians are well positioned to illuminate the complexity and promise of becoming American.