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Postdoctoral Research Proposal – Second Book

submitted at the German Historical Institute Washington (GHI) on the 15th of January 2024

Thematic Areas:

Migration, Kinship & Belonging / History of Race & Ethnicity



Dr. des. Johanna Mamali Panagiotou (Amerika-Institut, LMU)



Black Collective Identity, Self-Esteem, and Transnational Consciousness

During the Revitalization of Harlem in the 1980s


by Langston Hughes


What happens to a dream deferred?

      Does it dry up

      like a raisin in the sun?

      Or fester like a sore—

      And then run?

      Does it stink like rotten meat?

      Or crust and sugar over—

      like a syrupy sweet?

      Maybe it just sags

      like a heavy load.

      Or does it explode?






Poem: The Collected Works of Langston Hughes, © 2002

Image: © Kris Graves,

  • Introduction

In the field of American Cultural History, the pursuit of advanced transatlantic research has become imperative to unravel complex challenges and push the boundaries of knowledge. As a postdoctoral researcher, committed to evolving the frontiers of Black Collective Identity, Self-Esteem, and Transnational Consciousness, I present at the GHI based in Washington this proposal for a project that has the dual aim to address critical gaps in our understanding of the history of African Americans as intellectuals and entrepreneurs as well as to contribute to the discourses on the interaction inside the Black Diaspora in the United States.

Building upon my doctoral research in Cold War History, this proposed project on Migration, Kinship and Belonging, seeks to delve into Harlem in the academically neglected decade of the 1980s that was culturally and economically coined by the reopening of the Apollo Theatre in 1985 and the opening of the indoor market Mart 125 inn 1986 in Harlem’s key commercial sector, the 125th street. The emphasis is put on Mart 125 as it gave local street vendors the opportunity to be part of a brick-and-mortar that is perceived in this work not only as a business and cultural activities place, but as a locus of encounter and interaction between the Africans Americans, Caribbean Africans, and Continental Africans in all its permutations regarding also their intellectual and social background.


  • Research Objectives

By synthesizing interdisciplinary insights from the next outlined topics, the project aspires to not only expand the theoretical foundations on Black Collective Identity and Transnational Consciousness but also combine these findings with the experiences of the central characters. The overarching goal is to align our global understanding, give the protagonists a voice to narrate the above-described encounter, including the transcultural interaction [1] among all people of African descent during the Revitalization of Harlem in the 1980s. The research is based on a unified theory regarding historical, political, cultural, and social context, considering perspectives such as the principle of self-esteem, but also critically questioning parameters including Black Nationalism.  

  • Table of Contents   

Chapter 1: The Historical and Political Context 

Situated in the northern section of Manhattan, New York City, Harlem has been rising as an epicenter for African American cultural vitality and a symbol of the African diaspora's enduring spirit. Harlem's roots trace back to the late 17th century when the area was a Dutch village, named Nieuw Haarlem, after the Dutch city of Haarlem, not far away from Amsterdam. Over the centuries, the neighborhood evolved from farmland to a fashionable residential district in the late 19th century, attracting an influx of prosperous residents and undergoing transformative phases until it became worldwide particularly known as the West 125th Street in Harlem housed the Foundation’s offices of former President Bill Clinton in 2001.

Looking back at Harlem’s cultural and economic prosperity aiming to understand the topos Harlem, it is significant to consider its rich history, combined with the political-social context of each era. The material could be structured as following:

− Early History: Fleeing racial oppression and seeking economic opportunities

The Reconstruction Era (1865−1877)

The First Great Migration (1910−1940)

Harlem During the World War I (1914−1918)

Racial Violence and the Red Summer in 1919

Harlem in the early 1920s: Marcus Garvey and the Convention of the Negro Peoples of the World

Harlem During the Great Depression (1929−1939)

              Harlem During the World War II (1939−1945)

− The Second Reconstruction (1954−1968) and the Aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement in Harlem

Black Panther Party Harlem Branch based on evidence of BPP activity in Harlem earlier than 1966

The Asian American Nationalism in der Era of Black Power (1966−1975)

The Congress of African People (1970)

− The 1970s and the 1980s politics

Ronald Reagans Black American Policy (1981−1989)

Mayor of New York City Edward I. [Ed] Koch (1978−1989)

African American Mayor of New York City David Dinkins (1990−1993)


Chapter 2: The Cultural and Social Context

−  The Harlem Renaissance (1918−1937) and the Cultural Revitalization of the 1980s: Similarities and Differences

−  Black Unemployment and the Struggle for Equity  


Chapter 3: Harlem’s Black Intellectuality in the 1980s

Born 1924 in Harlem, James Baldwin belongs like Bell Hooks, Angela Devis, Toni Morrison to the pantheon of black intellectuality. Nevertheless, they were also intellectual black people like Dr. Kanya Vashon McGhee, founder of the Tree of Life bookstore who passed a milestone with their activities in the studied environment attracting black intellectuals and will be presented in this work.


Chapter 4: Harlem’s Black Entrepreneurship in the 1980s

»Like the first Reconstruction, however, the second failed to erase the economic inequalities that originated in slavery and were reinforced by decades of segregation. Many black Americans have entered the middle class, but unemployment and poverty remain far higher than among whites«. [2]


While conceptualizing this project, the Brooklyn Public Library presents a colossal installation dedicated to the life and work of Shawn “JAY-Z” Carter. The exhibition hosts inter alia lyrics by the black rapper, such as the known verse »I’m not a Businessman, I’m a Business, Man« which, in terms of self-esteem, depicts how African Americans are for many years perceived in a capitalist system, where they stand out primarily in the entertainment and sport industry by making a brilliant career within a lucrative business, from which many, mainly white people, benefit from.

Nevertheless, a serious number of black people in the USA have managed over the years to become respectful business(wo)men, beginning from the first female black self-made entrepreneur and millionaires, Mary Ellen Pleasant (1814−1904) and Madam C.J. Walker (1867−1919), in order to also entail the perspective of class, race, gender

Similar to the 19th century, it was for black people in the mid-20th century and afterward an endeavor to build and develop their own business, as they were excluded for instance from bank loans. The phrase »Do not buy from where you cannot work« was a characteristic description for the situation of unemployment, as they were even not allowed to work there.

The ideas and research-results of the Pulitzer Prize in History winner, Marcia Chatelain, and her book Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, a study of how McDonald's restaurants have assisted many Black entrepreneurs but also harmed African Americans will help me to understand the contexts and could be a good basis to organize my own theoretical thoughts and evaluate the findings.

A particular focus will be on the following topics:

− The reopening of the Apollo Theater in 1985 as a paradigm of Black Cultural Economy.

− The Mart 125: From the Prosperity to the Failure – Criticism on the fatal management that led to the closure in 2001.


Chapter 5: Pan-Africanism and Black Diaspora in the Aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement  

This topic will be theoretically substantiated by the thoughts of scholars like Marcus Garvey and W. E. B du Bois, although they may not completely capture contemporary thoughts on Pan-Africanism, but as one of the first founding ideas, they can give the first impulses to the project. In order to develop and enhance my thoughts, I aim to consider recent ideas of African scholars as Hakim Adi (Cf, Pan-African History) and Amilcar Cabral (Cf. Returning to the Source), on black unity, class consciousness and the purpose and impact of culture. The methodological part will be enriched by the radical ideas of Thomas Sankara. My hypothesis here is that even not all protagonists were particularly politized, they must all had been influenced by discourses on slavery, colonialism, racism, and the struggles for independence. Following scholars can also give us a good sense of African intellect in Africa and their ideas about the Black human's state of existence globally. Steve Biko's works, particularly his discussion on the black consciousness, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (Cf. Decolonizing the Mind), Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni's books, Joel Modiri, Ndumiso Dladla, and Benedict Anderson's (Cf. Imagined communities) developed a conceptual grounding of what is meant by common and collective identity.


Chapter 6: Common/Collective Identity and Transnational Consciousness [3]

»I'd like to live in in a tree line street, I'd like to have a summer home on the lake, I'd like to have a yacht do that belongs to the North Shore Yacht Club, I'd like to wear suits from Brooks Brothers like many Americans. And I am an American. We think this way. There's no other way to think. I can't think African, I can't think Irish, I can't think Norwegian. I must think within the society I live, which is a white society. So, their values are imposed on me, and I think this kind of way. I don't think of myself as being a Negro; never until recently have I really been concerned that I am a Negro. I thought all the while that I was an American. «

Name not available, Source: © Inside the Negro Middle Class


»Vendors came from West Africa and parts of Central and East Africa, from Senegal, Guinea, Ghana, Nigeria but largely from Senegal, Guinea and Ivory Coast. The came and they found Harlem! They're black people, we were black, and we were at that time talking about being one family, welcoming people from all over the world. We were in those days still discovering ourselves and celebrating being African. Harlem changed. I used to love to come to the 125th Street, because of the atmosphere, the colors, the rhythm, not only because I was buying fabulous clothes. You couldn't get a lot of other places like Harlem. These vendors came from their villages, there was no middleman involved. It was a marvelous place you could smell the incense, you heard different rhythms. Sometimes the brothers will be playing flutes. So, it was a blending of African Americans, Caribbean Africans and Continental Africans. They got along for the most part very well and they were doing business! «

Camille Yarborough, Cultural Activist and Artist, Source: © Harlem Mart 125: The American Dream


This part is not only limited to questioning the special situation of the 1980s in Harlem but also to outlining the development of what it means to share a common/collective identity while balancing between heterogeneity and homogeneity in an occasionally hostile environment. The topic will theoretically be substantiated inter alia by the Common Oppression Theory by Tommie Shelby (Cf. "Foundations of Black Solidarity: Collective Identity or Common Oppression?". In: Ethics, Vol. 112, No. 2, January 2002, pp. 231-266).


Chapter 7: Self-Esteem, and Self-Narratives in Harlem during the Revitalization 

»We saw ourselves as one people, as sisters and brothers regardless of where we came from or what language we spoke or what tribe we belong to or what section of America you came from whether. We went side by side in the development of economy that would have been international, and it was at the national it was like it was with the hunters’ station where tourists came from around the world to see us because of our uniqueness. «

                                                Morris Powell, 125th Street Vendors’ Association, Source: © Harlem Mart 125: The American Dream


Theoretical fundaments [4] [5] [6] [7] [8]

Regarding Identity, my mythological aim is to mainly work on Georg Mead’s theory of the self-emphasized the relationship between the self and the other or the socially constructed nature of identity. He distinguished "I" from "me," proposing that "I" is the social self, while "me" constitutes each individual's own sense of self. He further asserted that neither of these can exist without the other. According to Mead, individual identities develop in response to the attitudes of others, which are incorporated into individuals' self-perception. The development of the self is achieved through interaction with other individuals and the world around us. To subsume these ideas in Mead's own words: »We are one thing to one man and another thing to another. There are all sorts of different selves answering all sorts of different social reactions. It is the social process itself that is responsible for the appearance of the self. «

Further, Anthony Giddens can also provide a theoretical framework. The work of identity is always going on. Identity is not some primordial core of personality that already exists. Nor is it something we acquire at some point in the same way that, at a certain age, we grow a set of permanent teeth. (…) Our identity is something we constantly renegotiate during the course of our lives. Identity is fundamentally temporal. Because it is constructed in social contexts, the temporality of identity is more complex than a linear notion of time. Identities are defined with respect to the interaction of multiple convergent and divergent trajectories.

Giddens’ understanding of identity is one of »coherent, yet continuously revised, biographical narratives«. Self and reflexivity are interwoven, so that identity is considered as the ability to construct a reflexive narrative of the self. Identity comprises many narratives that a person constructs for him or herself, which can vary with time and occasion. In other words: an individual's self-identity is a collection of reflexively constructed, personal, and social narratives.The narrative created by an individual includes past memories and future plans in which private “stories” are shaped by the external sociocultural environment and form their life trajectory or »trajectory of the self«. Narrative also offers a way of understanding the self as a unity.

Finally, yet importantly, the conceptuality of self-esteem by Alicia D. Cast and Peter J. Burke (Cf. "A Theory of Self-Esteem". In: Social Forces, Volume 80, Issue 3, March 2002, pp. 1041–1068) will frame the methodology.


  • Epilogue

The Harlem Renaissance, spanning the 1920s and 1930s, was a flourishing of black art and intellectualism. Figures such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Duke Ellington contributed to this revitalization, elevating Harlem to the forefront of a cultural revolution. The Cotton Club, the Apollo Theater, and the Savoy Ballroom became iconic venues that showcased the brilliance of black culture during this period. Despite historical challenges as the Great Depression, Harlem retained its cultural significance. The neighborhood also played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement, hosting marches and rallies that aimed to dismantle racial segregation and inequality.

Regardless of the social struggle and the cultural uniqueness, Harlem's history is also marked by periods of economic prosperities and hardships. Putting the emphasis on recent decades, revitalization efforts, community activism, and cultural preservation this project take a closer look at Harlem as a place of transformation and a main attraction in the 1980s – this time not for black people from the South who wanted to escape racism during the Great Migration, but from people of color from all over the world whose unitality concern was to fight unemployment. Thus, a new gentrification period started for Harlem that is became the epicenter of new discourses.

Nevertheless, history has its own rules and transformed these individuals to the protagonists of an exceptional and historically precious transcultural encounter and part of an enduring legacy that deserves to further be researched, embracing the dynamism of their cultural or and economical creativeness in the most known Black Mecca in the world.


  • Sources

Primarily Sources [Archives / Museums / Research Centers / Libraries]

− National Archives_ African American Heritage.

− Library of Congress, Washington, DC,

− The New York Library Archives_ Black Panther Party Harlem Branch files (1969−1970).

− New York City_ Municipal Archives & Library_ Department of Records & Information Services.  

− Archives of the Harlem Commonwealth Council founded in 1967.

− National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C. (NMAAHC).

− Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York.

− The Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Cambridge, MA.

− The African American Museum in Philadelphia.


Secondary Sources [a selection of the Bibliography, cf. sources mentioned in each chapter above]

  • Kinloch, Valerie (2015). Harlem on Our Minds: Place, Race, and the Literacies of Urban Youth. New York: Teachers College.

  • Joseph, Celucien L. (2012). "The Haitian Turn": Haiti, the Black Atlantic, and Black Transnational Consciousness. Texas: University of Texas at Dallas.

  • Hinton, Elizabeth Kai; Manning Marable (2011). The New Black History: Revisiting the Second Reconstruction. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • John U. Ogbu (2004). "Collective Identity and the Burden of “Acting White” in Black History, Community, and Education". In: The Urban Review, Volume 36, March 2004, pp. 1–35,

  • Wright, William D. (2002). Black History and Black Identity: A Call for a New Historiography. Westport: Prager Publishers.

  • Allen, Richard L. (2001). The Concept of Self: A Study of Black Identity and Self-Esteem. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.



Journal of Black Studies; Journal of African American Studies; African American Review; Critical African Studies; The Black Scholar; The Review of Black Political Economy.


Empirical Research / Oral History

Interviews with activists-protagonists in the 1980s, also Influenced by their parents and grandparents who also witnessed the Harlem Renaissance.



Harlem's Mart 125: The American Dream (2005) by Rachelle Salnave; Hughes Dream Harlem (2002) by Jamal Joseph; I Remember Harlem (1981) by William Miles; Inside the Negro Middle Class (1968) by William Greaves and William Branch.




[1]I have not yet reached a conclusion if and on which extend the interaction with further local minorities (e.g., Hispanic and Latino Americans) should be addressed.

[2] Foner, Eric; Mahoney, Olivia (1997). America’s Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War. Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press (LSU). Retrieved from the Digital History Site, Epilogue: The Unfinished Revolution.

Available under:


[3] Common is referring to basic common norms and values, while Collective is receipted as solidarity driven type of identity.


[4] [5] [6] [7] [8] Theoretical fundaments

Phillips, Tim; Western, Marc C. (2005). "Social Change and Social Identity: Postmodernity, Reflexive Modernization and the Transformation of Social Identity in Australia". In: Rethinking Class: Culture, Identities and Lifestyle. London: Palgrave MacMillan, p. 166.

Most simply, a narrative is a spoken or written account of connected events: a story. Hyland, Ken, (2018) “Narrative, Identity and Academic Storytelling”. In: ILCEA, no. 31 (March 1, 2018).

Wenger, Communities of Practice, p. 154.

W. Morris, Charles; Mead, George Herbert (2000). Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist, Works of George Herbert Mead, George Herbert Mead, vol. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mead, Morris, and Mead, p. 142.

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