From Mon Mar 12 22:18:31 2001
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] Integration vs. Assimilation
Date: Mon, 12 Mar 2001 22:16:54 -0500 (EST)

(Structural) Integration vs. (Cultural) Assimilation: A Distinction with a Difference [Draft]

By Perry A. Hall <>, paper read at the 16th Annual Pan-African Studies Conference, Indiana State University, Terre Haute, Indiana, 10 April 1999

This paper has grown out of ideas I began developing in a recently completed manuscript that is being put out later this year by the University of Tennessee Press. The book is entitled, “In the Vineyard: Working in African American Studies” and is devoted to documenting and applying a conceptual approach which as the title suggests, has evolved out of my working experience in African American studies over, shall we just say, quite a number of years. Briefly, this approach is conceived as an alternative to existing approaches that I generally categorize as “conventional” or integrationist on one hand, or “Afrocentric” or nationalist on the other. It is an approach that recognizes the enduring validity of the “double-consciousness” formulation of W.E.B. Du Bois nearly a century ago (1) and seeks a synthesis that embraces each aspect of that duality. It is a perspective that recognizes the great range of dimensions in which the tensions, contradictions, and paradoxes of this doubleness become manifest in the lives of black individuals and black communities. As Marable noted, “Our identity is always found within the creative and contradictory tension between tradition, ritual and heritage on one hand, and innovation, individuality and assimilation on the other.”(2)

In this spirit I have looked at the issues of integration vs. assimilation; to consider how, in the passage of history, the terms are often conflated as social or political goals; treated as if they were the same when in fact they are not; at least, not always. The terms, especially the term “integration,” are used to mean many things. That's part of the problem. Let me say quickly that when I speak of “integration” I mean structural integration,” referring to a political goal of gaining access to institutions, opportunities, levers of power, in the mainstream economic, social, and political structures. In terms of outcomes, structural integration essentially reduces to the ability to live, be educated, and be employed according to merit, removing race as a criterion of selection. Cultural assimilation means both adoption of mainstream cultural norms and loss of indigenous cultural distinctiveness. (It is important to note that these are different processes. In the compartmentalized reality of African American “double-consciousness” it should be possible, and in my view necessary, to adopt mainstream cultural norms while nonetheless retaining at least certain key features of cultural distinctiveness.) The tendency to conflate structural integration and cultural assimilation is a legacy of earlier (antebellum and 19th century) periods in history when the distinction was not apparent or salient.

In making this argument I postulate that there are different channels through which various groups of blacks have experienced connections to an alternate, Africa-based identity or cultural reference frame that, in historical terms, originate with different groups of African Americans. Du Bois suggested one kind of African connection with his observations regarding the emergence of pan-Africanism. “The idea of one Africa to unite the thought and ideals of all native peoples, he wrote, “…stems naturally from the West Indies and the United States. Here various groups of Africans, quite separate in origin became so united in experience and so exposed to the impact of new cultures that they began to think of Africa as one idea and one land. Thus, in the late eighteenth century when a separate Negro Church was formed in Philadelphia it called itself “African”; and there were various “African” societies in many parts of the United States.”(3)

This I call self-conscious construction of connections to Africa, and it often results from recognizing the pervasive effects of American racism. Self-conscious constructions of black identity originate in the free black community of the antebellum period. Another quite different channel involves the unselfconscious internalization of cultural traits and sensibilities from African cultures that survived enslavement and forced acculturation and continue to influence the cultural reference frames of African Americans through language patterns, family structures, religious practices, folklore, and other areas. Unselfconscious internalization of surviving African sensibilities is a legacy of the cultural experiences of enslaved blacks during that same period. This distinction comes into play in my discussion of integration vs. assimilation.

Dating back to the antebellum 19th century and before, structural integration was a central goal in the collective agendas and strategies that African Americans developed to deal with the forms of racist oppression that various historical epochs have presented. Pursuit of this objective has entailed overcoming or striking down barriers of systematic discrimination and exclusion of blacks from institutions and social arenas. Originally, the objective of antebellum free blacks was to live and to be accepted as “full” American citizens. Since differences in education, literacy, manner of speaking, dress, and other social markers reinforced the dominant mainstream perception of inferiority, blacks reasoned that becoming literate and educated would make them more acceptable to whites and able to function and interact properly with them.(4)

Usually, this meant abandoning of indigenous sensibilities. For example, the 19th century northern black church, while providing a vocal and effective anti-slavery leadership vanguard, employed a worship style more like the white denominations from which they emerged than like the heavily Africanized worship style of the enslaved brothers and sisters on whose behalf they campaigned. For example, the musical repertoire of southern black folk church was wholly different from that of the northern independent black churches, which evolved directly form northern white Protestant denominations. According to Portia Maultsby, the church services of this elite middle-class “strictly followed the established liturgy and sang from the official hymnal.”(5)

Of course the separation between the religious worship experiences of northern and southern blacks was not complete. There are continuities that flow from the involvement northern churches with abolition, their role in helping escaped slaves, and the consequent presence of southern-bred blacks in their congregations. However, in a trend that has been consistent when southern black culture is transplanted in the North, southern black folkways are scorned and discouraged by northern blacks, who see them as a mark of difference, which, in the context of American racism, is a badge of inferiority. Thus, officials of black independent churches noted harshly that some in the congregation were “clapping and stamping the feet in a ridiculous and heathenish way.” Such behaviors constituted “undesirable practices,” and northern clergy “seemed to associate demonstrative forms of religious expression with the ‘unenlightened.'”(6) Their hope was that removing as much as possible those stigmatized differences, by speaking, dressing, and conducting themselves as much like the “respectable” mainstream as possible, they would demonstrate that blacks were not inferior, and (at least those “respectable” blacks) did not deserve the stigmatized treatment. Thus, the goal of assimilation was inextricably embedded in the goal of integration.

In describing 19th century black leaders as culturally assimilated my point is not to criticize them. Indeed, they are to be appreciated for their ability to use cultural literacy to articulate visions of struggle and freedom for blacks. Frederick Douglass effectively employed the logic of Western Enlightenment philosophy in arguing against slavery. Black Methodists and others in the independent church movement, criticized white Methodists and other white clergy for not following their own Christian logic. Martin Delany sought to apply European ideas of national destiny to blacks. My point is to emphasize that under these conditions there was no functional distinction between the goal of racial equality and the goal of cultural assimilation.

This observation also applies even to those who became black nationalists and separatists in this historical era through a process that largely retained the assimilationist framework that most free blacks had adopted. Present-day nationalists often claim these predecessors by conflating their rejection of racism with embrace of indigenous African culture; assuming, in other words, that their moves toward institutional and political separatism reflected a complete break with previous tendencies toward cultural assimilation. They discount or ignore Wilson Moses' observations that

Black cultural nationalism of the classical period must, therefore, be carefully distinguished from that of the late twentieth century. The nationalism of Alexander Crummell and Marcus Garvey was situated in a “high culture” aesthetic, which admired symbols of imperial power, military might, and aristocratic refinement. Post-Garveyite nationalism, reflecting the influences of twentieth-century anthropology, has tended to idealize African village life, sentimentalize the rural South, and romanticize the urban ghetto.(7)

Afrocentrism is basically blind to this paradox. Referring to 19th century back-to-Africa movements, Asante glosses right past it when he states, “Those who preached the rhetoric of return [emigrationists advocating a return to Africa] were fundamentally celebrating the survival of an African sensibility in the African American.”(8) In fact, however, (to the degree to which Asante is referring to a sense of cultural continuity and affinity with Africa) virtually nothing could be further from the truth. Surviving African sensibilities, though plentiful in the southern oral cultural, were virtually absent in the free northern culture where this movement was enacted. Proto-nationalists like Martin Delany and Alexander Crummell were part of the relatively well-educated elite class that was most distant from surviving African sensibilities.

Their separatist aspirations always came in the context of the failure of earnest and concerted efforts to assimilate culturally as Americans, which of course were consistently and systematically rejected. This “nationalist” reaction is perhaps more accurately described, as Richard Thomas does, as manifesting the “alienation of the quasi-assimilationist marginal strand” when the frustrations of their marginality become manifest.(9) Black literary societies, for example, were founded “only after middle-class blacks…were thrown out of white literary societies.”(10) In a similar vein, Paul Gilroy observes that Delany “…thought of himself as a man of science… that Delany's political sensibilities were radicalized after he was denied the right to patent his invention for transporting railroad locomotives because, legally he was not a citizen of considered a citizen of the United States.”(11)

The separatist tendency peaked in the 1850s, when the Dred Scott decision, the Fugitive Slave act, were among many indications that the country was moving away from acceptance of black citizenship rights, whether slave or free. In this period, such notable figures as Martin Delany, Henry Highland Garnett, and Alexander Crummell, gave voice to the growing nationalist and emigrationist sentiments emerging among black leaders and organizations. However, the ideas of nationhood, race, and culture with which black leaders and intellectuals were involved were not based on any ideas or impulses that could be argued to have an indigenous connection to Africa, nor were they substantially concerned with recognizing, reclaiming, or preserving indigenous African culture. As Wilson Moses points out:

“…Ironically, the cultural ideals of nineteenth-century black nationalists usually resembled those of upper-class Europeans and white Americans, rather than those of the native African or African American masses. Classical black nationalists were quick to claim an ancestral connection with Egypt and Ethiopia, but showed little enthusiasm for the cultural expressions of sub-Saharan Africa. They certainly were not inclined to sentimentalize the manners and morals of the enslaved masses in the Southern United States.”(12)

Historical nationalism among blacks has thus been based on institutional concepts mirrored from Euro-American mainstream culture and thought—not a sense of cultural continuity with Africa. It was a nationalism that actually required them to culturally reject Africa. Even Marcus Garvey's conception of African culture saw a need for it to be “redeemed,” rather than reclaimed in some aboriginal indigenous state. Regarding an illumination of this para- doxical dynamic, Asante seems closer to the truth, which remains unnamed, when he summarizes Henry McNeal Turner's turn to emigrationism after a career in the failed Reconstruction politics of Georgia: “Depression, anxiety, frustration, then, were the marks of Turner's conversion; he was a victim of the white man's nationalism, and his response was a black man's nationalism.”(13)

Whether integrationist or nationalist in orientation, the leadership class has led the way, in showing more disadvantaged blacks the ways of literacy, thrift, diligence, patience, morality, and virtue. Often passionate and selfless, this tradition has embodied self-help and racial uplift in movements as historically far-flung as the antebellum abolition and convention movements, the colored women's club movement of the 1890s, and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Although blacks have made great collective strides toward assimilation, these attempts to eliminate the stigma of cultural difference have been only marginally successful. Individually, some blacks become very accomplished and receive acceptance and recognition from some whites. However, as blacks keep discovering individually and collectively, there is virtually no escape from the social construction of racial difference. Nearly all blacks, no matter their level of success or accomplishment, have “encounters” at some point with the sting of racialized stigma that “remind” them that in the eyes of at least some whites they will always be despised — despite their accomplishment or their mainstream cultural assimilation.

This lack of recognition and affirmation from the wider culture constitutes a significant hardship in its own right, aside from, and in addition to, the economic, social, and physical oppression commonly experienced by blacks, by fundamentally confounding issues of black identity and culture. It is central in the dilemma of double-consciousness; described by Du Bois as the sense of always seeing oneself through the eyes of others that yields no true self-consciousness. “True self-consciousness,” I maintain, embodies the need for cultural affirmation in a framework where others affirm rather than stigmatize and reject you. And, I maintain further that it is this need for a framework of affirmation on which African American separatist tendencies are historically based.

In the 19th century—the ante-bellum and Jim Crow periods, for example—black literary and cultural organizations, black independent churches, and back-to-Africa and other emigration movements, all reflect this tendency. However, the descriptors, “African” and “Afro-American,” were self-consciously constructed as part of an alternate identity, or cultural framework. The basic, literate, Western, cultural and institutional framework embraced in their pursuit of acceptance and assimilation is not fundamentally changed. Very little in the way of African sensibilities (that survived through unselfconscious internalization) were incorporated in these separatist efforts. Ironically, those transformed remnants of African sensibility that did survive in the oral culture of rural and Southern blacks were, as already indicated, generally shunned and discouraged by those blacks attempting to create and live out a non-slave black identity.

It is indeed highly ironic, when dealing with aspects of black experiences, such as the dynamics of cultural validation, that it is so easy to undervalue the tremendous significance of what I have defined here as the African American folk/popular tradition, as these early leaders often did. Nonetheless, critical sensibilities forming the core of an alternate framework of affirmation, buttressing black identity, esteem, and self-worth against the onslaught of mainstream stigma, have consistently emerged from that folk/popular tradition, despite rejection and/or lack of recognition from the leadership class. Organized around this core are a range of distinct sensibilities—involving aesthetics, expression, gesture, rhythm, movement, and attitude—that, in varying degrees and configurations for different black folks, anchor sensibilities that truly affirm black identities and cultural reference frames against the storm of mainstream stigmatization and rejection. It is this side of the African-American duality — the one that sets them off and culturally differentiates them from the mainstream—that affirms most fundamentally the humanity of black individuals and validates the authenticity of their experiences.

At the core of this indigenous cultural framework are African influenced religious and spiritual orientations. But music, easily transversing boundaries between sacred and secular dominions, is that core's principal medium of transmission. Music is the ethereal medium through which African influenced sensibilities flow, the framework that supports the structure, the mortar which holds it tight, the palpable substance that makes it real, the extra-corporeal soul that gives it life. As most will agree black music, a powerful voice for grass roots African American experiences, has had a critical role framing and cementing this alternate cultural space. With the barest of resources and in the most oppressive times African Americans have drawn from the musical traditions of their folk/popular tradition to fashion stunning affirmations of their own humanity that mitigate the scorn of the surrounding culture, and ultimately transform the wider culture itself. Among the multitude of musical forms blacks have created, mention of two should illustrate this point adequately.

The first is blues. Issuing from roots in the rural folk culture during the period described as the “nadir” of race relations in the late 19th century, the “secular spiritual” not only helped redeem the suffering of the rural masses, but has become, arguably, the most influential music in the world. It is certainly the basis of all succeeding forms of black (and therefore American) popular music. The second form is blues' urban offshoot, “rhythm-and-blues.” It was also a product of bad times, germinating as part of a black “underground” culture that managed to flourish culturally in the 1930s and 40s while the world at large was suffering in the throes of depression. Emerging from that underground after the Second World War, R&B became another form of black music that revolutionized the wider culture, becoming the basis for “rock-and-roll” and thus energizing an entire generation of world-changing baby-boomers.

I am arguing that the degree to which these core sensibilities become internalized and functional, rather than shunned and discouraged, is precisely the degree to which the differences between structural integration and cultural assimilation become possible. The maturation of that folk/popular cultural reference frame in this modern context embodies an alternative to complete cultural assimilation as blacks struggle past structural barriers of systematic discrimination and exclusion. That is, the degree to which blacks embrace and preserve the referents of the indigenous culture is the degree to which there is an alternative to—which we often experience as refuge from — assimilation for those African Americans who rise, become successful, or otherwise `integrate” into mainstream institutional and social life.

The story of the great urban migration is the story of the experiences of the folk/popular masses. (The more privileged class was largely urbanized already.) The cultivation of grass roots black communities in the urbanized, industrialized world of the 20th century marked the beginning of wide-scale cultural interaction with and impact on the larger culture. The Civil Rights Movement occurred because the grass-roots masses became aroused and mobilized. Notwithstanding the integrationist goals fashioned by the middle-class leadership of that movement, the grass roots community's agenda embodied a great collective assertion of self-worth—celebrated in the “soul” music of that era — that transposed, as easily as a James Brown chord change, to being “black and proud,” when called, in the later 1960s, to “say it loud.”

The Soul of Black Folks

The story of the emergence of this indigenous cultural home base, where African Americans can find affirmation, validation, and refuge from mainstream stigma and scorn is, therefore, the story of the survival and transformation of the grass-rooted folk/popular tradition. With the rich African American musical tradition as a soundtrack, it is the expression of the “soul” of black folks. For some individuals, at least, it helps to provide a sense of connection, of cultural uniqueness, even while they navigate, negotiate, elevate, and otherwise “integrate” into the institutional and social life of the wider society. It becomes possible, in effect, to pursue “integrationist” (structural integration) goals, without necessarily being “integrationists” (i.e., cultural assimilationists).

Blacks who seek access to integrated housing, for example, don't necessarily want to “live with” whites. They may just want access to housing of the same quality as middle-class whites. They don't necessarily want their children to sit next to white children. They want their children to have access to quality education, like middle-class white children. Our discourse—locked in those previous conceptions of black identity that continue to conflate structural integration and cultural assimilation—has not developed tools to keep up with this complexity. Too often polarize that concept of “integration” as mutually exclusive to forms of black collectivity and “separatism.”

Coming full circle, the field of African American Studies itself provides one illustration of how this manifestation of African American duality, or double-consciousness, has been mediated. Creation of educational opportunities at predominately white colleges and universities is one of the great legacies of the integration movement. Blacks who entered college in the mid- and late 1960s—roughly, the black baby boomers, were the first to benefit from this struggle. It was like our history had delivered us, the best and brightest of our generation, to this integrationist paradise. But we discovered what African Americans before us had discovered. Whatever they did offer, the dominant culture's institutions didn't provide the validation, the affirmation our black souls needed—the true self- consciousness about which Du Bois spoke so urgently. Our reaction was, in effect, to recreate a framework of validation right there on campus, in the form of Black Studies programs and Black Cultural Centers.

For the most part, we didn't react to our sense of alienation by simply repudiating and leaving the integrated setting. Now there were those who used the kind of extreme logic that said, “these are the ‘oppressors' institutions and we can't help our community by being a part of the oppressive machine,” and left. Most, however, wanted and pursued the training, the credentials, and the knowledge such settings offered was that set in motion the processes by which the meant also led to the emergence of Black Studies.

In closing, let me summarize:

1) Integration and assimilation don't necessarily mean the same thing, even though we often argue, fuss and fight amongst each other as if they did.

2) Self-conscious construction of alternate black or African-based identities and reference frames has not always recognized the indigenous, internalized sensibilities that are, arguably, the real living manifestation of that tradition.

3) We should develop as many ways as possible of enhancing and adapting that tradition. And,

4) We should conceive that task as separate, or different from the task of pursuing equitable access to so-called mainstream institutions in this society, which was built, as much as anything, on the blood, sweat, and tears of our people.


1. W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Signet Books, 1982), 45.

2. Manning Marable, “The Divided Mind of Black America: Racial Ideologies and the Urban Crisis,” presented at the “Race Matters: Black Americans, U.S. Terrain Conference” (sponsored by the American Studies and Afro-American Studies Programs of Columbia University, April 30, 1994).

3. W. E. B. Du Bois, The World and Africa: An Inquiry into the Part Which Africa Has Played in World History (New York: International Publishers, 1965), 8.

4. Leonard P. Curry, “Philadelphia's Free Blacks: Two Views,” Journal of Urban History 16, no. 3 (May 1990): 319-325.

5. Portia Maultsby, “West African Influences and Retentions in U.S. Black Music: A Sociocultural Study,” in More Than Dancing: Essays on Afro-American Music and Musicians, ed. Irene Jackson (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987), 34.

6. Irene V. Jackson. “Music among Blacks in the Episcopal Church: Some Preliminary Considerations.” In Irene Jackson, ed. More Than Dancing: Essays on Afro-American Music and Musicians, p. 111.

7. Wilson Jeremiah Moses, Classical Black Nationalism: From the American Revolution to Marcus Garvey (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 3.

8. Molefi Asante, The Afrocentric Idea (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987), pp. 165-167.

9. Richard W. Thomas, “Working-Class and Lower-Class Origins of Black Culture: Class Formation and the Division of Black Cultural Labor,” Minority Voices (Fall, 1977).

10. Thomas. “Working-Class and Lower-Class Origins of Black Culture.”

11. Paul Gilroy ,The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Black Consciousness (Cambridge. Mass.: Harvard University Press,1993), 20.

12. Wilson J. Moses, “Introduction,” in Classical Black Nationalism: From the American Revolution to Marcus Garvey, Wilson J. Moses, ed. (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 3.

13. Asante. The Afrocentric Idea, p. 153.