What Do You Mean by “Authentic”?

Within the paratextual preface to Jupiter Hammon’s works, it mentions his familiarity with his own “ethnic past” and how a view of ancient history provides a “source of pride and identity for African Americans.” Immediately after this, however, the preface’s author/s note that this connection with ancient history “has been an impetus for a recurring quest for authentic African history and culture.” At first, I wasn’t sure why the idea of “authentic” African history and culture resonated with me, and then I remembered Ron Eglash in African Fractals mentions this idea of authenticity amid a problematic natural-artificial struggle. What does “authentic,” in terms of African American, African, or any culture, mean?

Now, based on the preface, whether the author/s agree with this authenticity quest is unclear, but the fact that they include it did catch my attention. Building on this idea of authenticity, Ron Eglash notes the dangers of categorizing history as either natural or artificial, within what he calls the analog-digital distinction.  Eglash says that he finds the “egalitarian view of the analog/digital distinction hard to promote” because everyone can pick their “favorite views” which can be represented for the whole. Jean Jacques Rousseau did just this with language, arguing that European languages were based on “digital articulation” and “the language of the noble savage was closer to nature.” One is real, or authentic, the other a representation, according to Rousseau. Despite this, in light of our Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs discussion, there can be multiple “authentic” perspectives told in different ways: both authors tell of their enslaved history.

These multiple perspectives, when on the “quest” for authenticity, can be pitted against one another and irresponsibly given the labels “natural” and “artificial,” as Rousseau did with language. For example, in class we discussed how Jacobs’ narrative was delegitimized and therefore wholly considered “artificial”  because white pro-slavery Americans didn’t believe her story. This would supplant Jacobs’ experience with Douglass’ narrative, telling only one story. African American culture and history, however, calls for both stories to be told because both experiences matter.

Tying this in with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story,” placing labels, the only artificial component of this discussion, on experiences does an injustice to the entire community. There is no one single “authentic”  history or culture, whether African,  African American, and so on. I understand the importance of ensuring African and African American culture and history are not inauthentically redacted, adapted, or censured through oppressive outside cultures, but there are many stories coming from within the culture, all “authentic,” that constitute them, as the Douglass and Jacobs example points out. These stories shouldn’t be ignored.

Looking at the harm this disservice of a single story has done to other groups historically, the 20th century Catholic-Protestant/Nationalist-Unionist conflict in Ireland and our current  issues with United States immigration come to mind.  Pigeonholing an entire people under one particular authentic “essence”(as Dr. Doggett would put it) only brings up questions of who/what is and who/what is not included as “authentic” or essential. While I would hope the author/s of the preface didn’t mean this by that one sentence of a “quest” for authenticity, the reminder of that quest’s danger is still necessary.

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