If America is to meet the challenges of the post-Civil Rights, postmodern era, then its citizens need to undergo no less than a paradigm shift in their conceptions of race and gender, said journalist and author Paula Giddings.
Giddings, who teaches at Duke University, gave a lecture on March 26 titled "From Crisis to Opportunity: The New Challenges of the Public Intellectual," one of the final events of Women's History Month. Giddings is the author of several books, including When and Where I Enter: The Impact on Black Women of Race and Sex in America. She is currently writing a book about antilynching crusader Ida B. Wells.
Giddings argued that American blacks are still using the 19th century paradigm of noted black intellectuals and leaders W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey, whose "amazing historic triangular feud produced everything of intellectual, spiritual, cultural and political value in the American Negro," she said, quoting scholar Harold Cruse.
"What made them great," she noted, "was their ability to provide new paradigms to embrace the new situation and indeed the new world they faced" in light of industrialization, urbanization, European immigration, imperialism and the rise of the new South. "These leaders all projected their ideas for roles and strategies that black, newly freed men and women could play in this rapidly changing society," Giddings said.
While the three men vehemently disagreed about the means to achieve a more viable role for African Americans, "what they all had in common was that they were black nationalists," said Giddings. For them, black nationalism was seen as an effective counterpart to white nationalism. Whites had "constructed a gendered white racial identity through constructions of difference from 'degraded' blacks," said Giddings. "It seemed quite logical for African Americans to construct a new meaning of black identity-one morally uplifted.
"But this made black nationalism, like its white counterpart, conservative in nature," she said. None of the nationalist theories of Du Bois, Washington or Garvey challenged how society is organized by class and gender. They only were concerned with exclusion of blacks from the mainstream, she said.
Giddings defined nationalism as not only originating in a "nation state," but as an "imagined community, a culturally grounded, imagined political community," she said, paraphrasing Mark Anderson. "In the imagined black nation, we speak of 'homeboy,' 'brother,' 'blood,' 'sister' and so on," she explained.
"Traditionally, the first job of all nationalisms is to constitute fixed identities," she said. "This is for the purpose of credentialing insider/outsider status. Who constitutes a legitimate citizenry of the group or the nation-real or imagined?
"In the United States, we understand this most readily by how mainstream culture has defined who deserves the rights of first class citizenship. [These are usually] constructions of racial difference, signified by skin color," she said.
These nationalist paradigms are still evident today among all groups. Giddings cited the new political right, which has been forced to base its politics on constructs other than racial differences. The new right uses code words and subliminal language to advance its agenda through cultural nationalism that is only implicitly racial, said Giddings. "It's not 'black people,' but an 'inner city culture of violence and immorality and welfare dependency' that is the target of the new right and that has created the atmosphere for the decreasing welfare legislation and other proposals."
However, "black nationalism, unlike its white counterpart, still constructs identity through essentialist 19th-century notions of racial difference," Giddings said. "In its binary notions of black and white, the process also forces the seeking of difference within the group as well. In operation, it authenticates who is black enough, or black at all, a discourse often heard in our community."
In a postmodern era that embraces diversity, Gidddings said, "when more people of color want to acknowledge all sides of their racial and ethnic heritage, when our backgrounds are more and more diverse, when our base of common interests has broadened-not diminished-this process done in the name of black solidarity inevitably excludes more than it encompasses."
Giddings suggests that America look to the once destructively nationalistic South Africa for ways to positively reinvent nationalism. The multicultural mandate of the country's new constitution ensures the rights of women and gays and has the most liberal abortion law in the world, despite the fact that abortion is highly controversial with the majority of blacks.
"What the enlightened leadership of South Africa has seemed to do is to keep the features of nationalism, which have given us positive things-a sense of history and culture-but politically engage a kind of collective egalitarianism that has the potential of releasing the nation's full cultural power," she said.
In this country, Giddings concluded, "we might want to think about the group in different, nonviolent ways with-as others have said-fluid and shifting boundaries based on shared history, shared struggles and shared destinies, rather than an essentialist notion of race."