The Term “African-American” Was Tried and is Too Tired!


Why do people, who descend from African slaves, call themselves African-Americans – what is the value and use of the adjective? We used to be called by a word that’s considered a fighting word; one that’ll get you fired. Then we were colored. Then Negro. Then Black. Then Afro-American.

Then Jesse Jackson is reputed to have coined the term “African-American” in 1989. The details are hazy and hard to pin down.

Jesse Jackson cir. 1983

Jesse Jackson cir. 1983

North Americans of African descent either describe themselves as Black or African-American, the latter of which feels clunky and unwieldy, if one thinks about it – but neither is accurate or precise. This labeling question is more and more important as African immigrants, who come to North America and strive, are confused and frustrated by labels, as all immigrants of color are when they arrive.

In April 2006, Manny Otiko, a Southern California-based free-lance writer, made a compelling argument about this in African American or Black American – Which Term is Accurate?

He wrote, in-part, “in reality, Africans and African Americans are not brothers, we are distant cousins. We were once part of the same family, but so much time has passed by that those family ties are threadbare. The development of black American culture, which is a combination of parts of African and Western European culture, has created a new tribe.”

When people notice that descendants of African slaves have little in common with African immigrants to North America, we can ask ourselves why we still call ourselves African-Americans; why we ally or align our identities with the continent, or even with the west coast.  African immigrants should be able to call themselves African Americans if they want to.

Manny Otiko

Manny Otiko

One might simply approach the question by asking which term accurately and precisely describes oneself. That is hard.  The term is  traditional and sacrosanct; I am convinced that those who would lobby to change term would catch hell.

I find the term clunky and unwieldy.   Also I must agree, in some ways, with extreme conservative and Manhattan senior Fellow, John McWhorter, when he wrote Why I’m Black.  Other than acknowledging the legacy connection to West Africa, where the bulk of North American slaves were taken from, North Americans of African descent have no real cultural connection to the continent or that region.

John McWhorter

John McWhorter

Mr. McWhorter writes in-part, “Living descendants of slaves in America neither knew their African ancestors nor even have elder relatives who knew them. Most of us worship in Christian churches. …Starting with ragtime and jazz, we gave America intoxicating musical beats based on African conceptions of rhythm, but with melody and harmony based on Western traditions.”

I agree: the connection to Africa is meager and tenuous. There is a romanticism.  It is occasionally pleasant as a way to commemorate and revere how the African holocaust is vital to our heritage, understanding part of an ancestral experience.  Otherwise Africa is rarely and barely connected to our daily lives and contemporary identities.

Mr. McWhorter also wrote, “‘Black’ isn’t perfect, but no term is.” Surprisingly, in doing so, as intent as he is on strict accuracy, when he referred to Africa, he is silly. He must understand that when he looks in a mirror is appropriate light, his color is not black.

Mr. Otiko’s retort answers this.  Though, it also makes us think that much more.  “The problem with the using the word ‘black’ to describe people of African descent is that is not strictly accurate. African people, are brown skinned – although there are some ethnic groups, such as Ghanaians and Sudanese, who have extremely dark skin that could be described as black.”

It is hard to avoid inferring an anti-African bias on Mr. McWhorter’s part.

South African or African-American Paulo Serodio

South African or African-American Paulo Serodio

Then there’s Paulo Serodio a South African who stirred tumult at a New Jersey medical school in May by insisting that he deserved to be called African-American; he is of Africa after all.

There’s an Anglo on You Tube, who makes a persuasive, if vulgar and profane argument.

This leaves me, perhaps even us, with a dilemma:

1. Stick with a term that is unwieldy to say and which carries a lot of emotional baggage of its own,

2. Revert to Black, which is inaccurate and also emphasizes color differences, which is part of the foundation of our absurd ways of discrimination, or

3. The Black communities can meander their way into choosing the next generation descriptor There are too many popular and scholarly reports that have reiterated Mr. McWhorter’s criticism about Black North Americans holding to tenusous ties to Africa.

This needs to be discussed.  Few people deliberate about what they’re saying, or how and why they do it.  It may be a chiefly intellectual exercise until a “celebrity” finally raises the question: “why do Americans descended from African slaves call themselves African-American?”

The United States are looking at taking the next Census, 2010; I cannot foresee us being bold and assertive enough to have an alternative to the term on this Census.  Electing President Barack Obama was extraordinary unto itself.

Perhaps if enough people of African decent and their friends, or even foes, are passionate enough about how people and different groups describe themselves, this will change. I won’t wait though.

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2 thoughts on “The Term “African-American” Was Tried and is Too Tired!

  1. Joanna says:

    I know this is an old article now, but I have to comment on it. I live in Sweden, where many immigrants from different countries in Africa live. Some of them are black, brown, light brown or white. It does not matter. Most people in Europe think americans are crazy because of how you put people in different categories when most of the people there are of mixed “race”. Why can´t people just be called American if they are american citizen? At least on paper? Then how people want to define themselves and look back generations should be something else. I think the american way just creates more racism. I also think that most people agree that there are no races, only one human race, so the whole race-issue is bizarre to me.

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