Americans of African Descent: Names and Identities

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« African, » « Colored, » « Negro, » « Black, » « Afro-American, » « African American »…

What is Africa to me
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star of jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black,
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?
« Heritage, » Countee Cullen-1925

The terms used to refer to Black Americans change with time, because times change and words have to change along with them. Brought over from Africa to serve as slaves, the people I will call « Black » eventually found freedom but not equality. Treated as second-class citizens, Blacks were finally granted equal rights but not equal privileges, and the search for a common term – a name they can use to describe themselves – continues today, raising important questions: Who chooses the names? What meanings do they carry? What is the historical progression that they reflect? What does the difficulty of finding and keeping a name reveal? Certainly it is more than just a linguistic debate; but maybe less than the passionate reactions it spurs. The changes in the names Black Americans wish to be called express a complex search for a cultural and racial identity.
During slavery, Blacks arriving from Africa naturally chose to call themselves « Africans, » whereas colonists often used the adjectives « slave » or « free, » or else the Spanish word « negro ». The term « African » can still be found in the names of religious congregations such as the First African Baptist Church, the African Episcopal Church or the African Masonic Lodge. However Blacks soon lost touch with the traditions of their homeland as a result of a voluntary policy of acculturation and the common practice of separating children from their families at birth. Furthermore, the exposure to racist representations that portrayed Africans as heathen, ape-like savages running naked in the jungle soon led Blacks to reject a term whose negative connotations when used by Whites became obvious. Hence « African » fell into disuse. With the end of the slave trade – which remained intense until 1833 despite its abolition in 1807 – the absence of massive new arrivals rendered the term obsolete. « African » became an insult. The 1991 film Boyz’N The Hood illustrates the harsh consequences awaiting those who use it when ten-year-old Tre gets into a fight for telling his classmate they are both Africans, and is subsequently suspended from school.
While « Negro » was used by all, the word « Colored » (usually spelled « Coloured » at the time) soon became prevalent in the Black community. Miscegenation was common, which resulted in a wider spectrum of skin complexion. White men had full power over their slaves and rapes often occurred; impregnating female slaves was one way of increasing a precious commodity, among other motives. Widely used until the beginning of the 20th century, the term « Colored » allowed America, a slave society that would later become an institutionally racist nation-state, to create a category encompassing all non-Whites. « Colored » could include Blacks, Native Americans, Mexicans in the Southwest, and later Asians and Latinos, though it referred primarily to Blacks as the name of the largest Black political association, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) founded in 1909, still attests. This is, however, probably the only context in which the use of the word is appropriate today. In the Sixties, « Colored » took on racist connotations, and « Colored boy » is the insult that tips off Sidney Poitier in They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (1970).
The evolution of the use of « Negro » is linked to that of « Colored, » which was the preferred term in the 19th century. But with the Jim Crow laws and the « separate but equal » ruling in 1896, the word appeared on every public entrance, every fountain, every restroom: « White / Colored ». Signs saying « No Dogs, No Colored » were common. The Black community therefore chose an alternative word, « Negro, » which was capitalized in the 1930s and used by newspapers as a mark of respect for the Black community. Like « Colored, » « Negro » refers to race (rather than ethnic origin or culture, as « African » does) in a country where a « drop of black blood, » to recall a popular expression, was enough to cast one out of white society. Functioning as a neutral term until the 1950s, « Negro » disappeared along with « Colored » in the 1960s and today only older Americans whose vocabulary dates back to that era use the two terms.
The 1960s were years of revolution. In a time of collective awareness when Afro haircuts were in vogue and the « Black is Beautiful » movement was born, many Blacks rediscovered their African roots. In spite of heated arguments, « Black » became the preferred term, sanctified by the Black Panthers and James Brown’s song « Say it Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud! » (1968). Used until then only as an adjective and rarely capitalized, it became a noun in the 1980s and gained a capital. Like « Colored » and « Negro, » « Black » describes skin color, technically, though it includes only people of African descent regardless of skin color: it cannot be used in reference to very dark Italian or Mexican Americans for example, but applies to very light-skinned Blacks. It also includes recent immigrants from the Caribbean, a people of a different culture who are nevertheless expected to blend into Black America within a generation. Many Blacks were hostile to the new term because of the direct reference to the blackness of their skin (hidden by the foreign sound of the word « Negro »), and « Black » had long been an insult equivalent to « African ». As the schoolyard rhyme goes, « If you’re white you’re all right, if you’re brown stick around, if you’re black, get back! » However, « Black » became the accepted word, and still is today.
The 1970s and 1980s gave birth to the many hyphenated terms that describe modern America’s ethnic minorities (Irish-American, Italian-American, Hispanic-American, Asian-American, etc.). Words such as « Eurasian » or « Afroeuropean » had long been used by anthropologists. The Black community chose « Afro-American », which had been used in writing since the beginning of the century. In an attempt to put the two components of the term on equal footing, « Afro-American » gave way to « African-American » and later « African American, » with the hyphen deleted as it implied the idea of a sub-category. Other suggestions did not catch on (yet?), such as « AfriAmerican, » « AfraAmerican, » « Afrimerican, » « Africamerican, » « Afrikan, » or even more creative inventions such as « Afrindeur American » (short for « African-Indian-European » in reference to the multiracial origins of most Black Americans) or « Dobanian » (short for « Descendant of Black African Natives in the American North »), which found few supporters. « African American » did not gain acceptance without generating debates, even if these disputes aroused less passion than those surrounding the change from « Colored » and « Negro » to « Black ». African Americans were quick to adopt the term. Problems arose with the 1990 census since many Blacks did not identify as « Black » and added « African American » as a category instead. Jesse Jackson defended the new term, which he used and explained at a press conference in December 1988: compared to « Black, » « African American » expresses a sense of belonging to a culture and, more importantly, creates a bridge with the African continent. It evokes slavery and acculturation while claiming an African heritage. « African American » emphasizes an African Diaspora rather than an American minority. Roughly ten years after the new name was first promoted, it is now accepted and used by most, especially the media when striving for political correctness. Africa is once again part of the name of Black Americans, as if the quest for identity had come back to its starting point. Returning to cultural origins that should never have been renounced, Black Americans have come full circle.
But does this new term resolve all issues of identity? Have we truly stopped looking for new names? Although most people use « African American, » many Blacks argue that there is nothing African about them, and that the term does not represent them. Others however, such as writer, cultural analyst and filmmaker Toni Cade Bambara, keep pushing for a redefinition of the term, suggesting for example the use of « Amero-African » rather than « African American » to emphasize the African rather than the American identity.
In fact, because these uncertainties and inventions stem from the demand for recognition and respect at the heart of the social and political struggle of the Black community, there is no reason why it should stop here. Each term remains unsatisfactory because there are always individuals who cannot identify with them. Tellingly, the use of the words « biracial » is gaining, since children of mixed parentage have no reason to deny the non-Black half of their identity. Because « biracial » remains vague, some prefer to use terms such as « AfroAsian, » « AfroEuropean, » « EuroAsian, » « AfroHispanic, » « African Latino, » etc. But what about a child whose four grandparents are Black, Asian, White and Hispanic? An easy way out is to use the term « multiracial, » which like « multicultural » recently came into vogue. Yet, who in America cannot be said to be multiracial? Do not the terms used to describe Blacks refer to a culture, after all, rather than a race?
If we look at recent academic literature, the articles written by cultural scientists make use of evocative names that designate the multiple facets of identity. When discussing the position of artists or writers, one does not merely speak of « Eurocentrism » and « Afrocentrism » anymore. bell hooks (who does not capitalize her name) is a particularly accessible critic of popular culture. In her many books, she identifies herself as an « Afrofemcentric » – that is, Afrocentrist and feminist. Michele Wallace, working on similar issues, calls herself an « Afrofemlezcentrist, » meaning an Afrocentrist, a feminist and a lesbian (referring to her sexuality but more important, to lesbian culture). The late Black poet Essex Hemphill spoke openly of his homosexuality before the term « Afroqueercentric » was coined. Will these words influence the way we speak of ourselves? It is hard to say, but they are signs of the growing difficulty of finding satisfying terms which reduce the identity of a group, and by extension of the individuals who compose it, to their race, even if the racial terms refer to a people’s culture, history, or roots. Race is not the simple concept it once appeared to be; the world is not just black and white.
In the end, what can be said of all these terms of diverse origin, whose usage leads to their systematic condemnation by subsequent generations who view them as racist, limiting, or generally unsatisfactory?
In fact, the fundamental paradoxical intentions behind the search for names account for their creation and disappearance. Those who invent them are trying to name a race, a black (« Negro, » « Black ») or non-white (« Colored ») race, when races do not exist in these terms: all Americans, particularly Black Americans, are racially mixed. Or they are trying to name a culture, whether more African (« Afrikan, » « Ameri-African ») or American (« Afro-American, » « African American ») when all Black Americans, like their fellow citizens, belong to a mixed culture which both standpoints minimize. Finally and most importantly, these terms aim at expressing a sense of identity when the identity of each individual is manifold and comes from one’s experience as a Black person, a sexual being, a member of a social class, a region, a church, a political party. How can one word ever contain so much information? How can one feel justly represented by a word that must bring together millions of individuals and therefore erase individual idiosyncrasies? Individuals must therefore define themselves in relation to certain currently accepted terms – « Black, » « African American, » or other – which might lose their acceptable status in a matter of decades.
Despite the apparent triviality of these changes in vocabulary given the vast political issues that divide America, these semantic shifts shed light on the ways in which language reflects the power struggles in society. In a note to its readers following the decision to use the word Negro to refer to Black Americans in 1930, the New York Times explained: « [This] is not only merely a typographical change, it is an act in recognition of racial self-respect for those who have been for generations in the’lower case’. » Words carry meaning. From « African » to « African American, » it has been a long and difficult road. The result does not strike us immediately as revolutionary, though it hides many battles waged over hundreds of years.

<small »>Do watch Smokey Robinson’s poetry jam on changing appellations: (should the link be dead, look for « Smokey Robinson Black American » and you should find another)

-Lacayo, Richard, Time, « In Search of a Good Name, » March 6, 1989, vol 133 n°10 p. 32(1).
-Marable, Manning, Black Issues in Higher Education, « What’s in a Name? African American or Multiracial?, » March 6, 1997, vol 14 n°1 p. 112(1).
-Marty, Martin E., The Christian Century, « The Name Game, » November 22, 1995, vol 112 n°34 p. 1159(1).
-Seligman, Daniel, Fortune, « The Nomenklatura Speaks, » December 28, 1992, vol 126 n°14 p. 107(2).
-Smitherman, Geneva, Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner, Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 2000, Introduction.
-Wilkerson, Isabelle, New York Times, « ‘African American’ favored by many of America’s Blacks, » January 31, 1989, p. A1.
-Detroit Free Press,  » African American or black ? It’s debatable,  » January 1, 1989, p.1 and 12.
-Jet, « Broad Coalition Seeks’African American’ name, » January 16, 1989, vol 75 n°15 p. 53(1).
-U.S. News & World Report, « The Delicate Roots of Identity, » October 30, 1989, vol 107 n°17 p. 17(2).
-Jet, « Stay Black Until April 1 Or’African American’ May Cause Census Count Mix-Up, » April 2, 1990, vol 77 n°25 p. 5(1).
-Jet, « Justice Marshall Decides To Use The Term’Afro-American’, » November 13, 1990, vol 77 n°6 p. 6(1).///Article N° : 5502


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