The problem of defining a coherent cultural identity is one that has confronted generations of Afro-Americans. As part of the justification and defence of slavery and the slave trade many whites rationalized their actions by arguing that all Africans were cultureless savages. The same combination of guilt and arrogance induced them to attempt to suppress and denigrate surviving elements of a culture whose very existence they had already denied. Most black Americans responded to these pressures by rejecting Africa and their African heritage as a source of shame and by trying to deny and to erase their blackness. Malcom X clearly understood this when he proclaimed in 1965: ‘ We have been a people who hated our African characteristics. We hated our black heads, we hated the shape of our noses …, we hated the color of our skin.’ Identification with the dominant white culture took many forms. For some Blacks it involved the use of hair straightening and skin bleaching; for others it meant the elimination of any ethnic quality in their speech, dress, cuisine and religion; for many more it meant a life of morality and hard work lived according to the dictates of the Puritan ethic. The loss of any distinctive cultural identity involved in this process was made worse by the unwillingness of white society to recognize and accept the Afro-American as part of the dominant culture. In these circumstances many blacks found themselves in a cultural limbo without an adequate self-image. White domination of the media meant that they sometimes felt literally invisible. James Baldwin drew attention to this dilemma in a speech delivered in June 1963, when he noted that:
A black child born in this country … discovers two terrifying things. First of all he discovers that he does not exits in it, no matter where he looks – by which I mean books, magazines, movies – there is no reflection of himself anywhere … [if] he finds anything which looks like him, he is authoritatively assured that this is a savage, or a comedian who has never contributed anything to civilization.