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Fifty Shades of Black

Kwame Raoul

Kwame Raoul is an Illinois State Senator and a Labor and Employment Partner in the Chicago Office.

I believe that as we observe African-American History Month it is important to highlight the diversity of African-American experiences. The African-American community is thought by many to be monolithic — with one culture, from the same place of origin and with a unified set of religious, social and political beliefs. This misconception drives many to seek to identify the leader or spokesperson of the black community. Why should African-Americans be relegated to having one leader if we do not have a single set of beliefs? Has there been a quest to find the leader of any other racial group?

As an elected official, I am often asked about “the African-American perspective” on a variety of issues including, but not limited to, gay rights, guns, abortion and immigration reform. The answer is that there is no single black perspective on most issues, just as there is no single white perspective. As the child of Haitian immigrants who were naturalized as American citizens and lived the American dream, I have a different perspective on immigration reform, for example, than some African-Americans who are the descendants of African slaves brought to America.

Perhaps part of the answer lies in the hyphen. We often fail to appreciate the difference between race and ethnicity when talking about African-Americans. When we hyphenate other races, we usually drill down to the level of ethnicity, but often we are unable — or unwilling — to do so when we identify black Americans. Even with advances in DNA technology opening up unprecedented opportunities to explore one’s ancestry, most black Americans do not know where precisely their ancestors lived. As a result, we stop at identifying black people in America by their continent of origin as opposed to their nation or region or ethnicity of origin. This tendency can cut us off from recognizing and celebrating our diversity.

I am blessed to be in touch with my Haitian culture. I am familiar with the fact that Haiti, as a result of a slave revolt, became the world’s first black-led republic. I believe that having been raised by Haitian-American parents impacts my perspective and how I conduct myself. Aspects of Haitian history and culture are demonstrative of the overlooked diversity in the African-American community. For instance, American history classes seldom teach that in 1779, during the American Revolution, hundreds of Haitian free men fought for American independence at the Siege of Savannah.

African-American History Month affords us the opportunity to learn about our multi-faceted heritage. It is my hope that in studying the varied history and ethnography of black Americans, we can also come to appreciate the diversity of perspectives arising from the African-American community today. We can and should learn about them without seeking to limit them.