Many are resisting labels that are a misleading connection to a distant culture.
The labels used to describe Americans of African descent mark the movement of a people from the slave house to the White House. Today, many are resisting this progression by holding on to a name from the past: “black.”
For this group — some descended from U.S. slaves, some immigrants with a separate history — “African American” is not the sign of progress hailed when the term was popularized in the late 1980s. Instead, it’s a misleading connection to a distant culture.
The debate has waxed and waned since African American went mainstream, and gained new significance after the son of a black Kenyan and a white American moved into the White House. President Obama’s identity has been contested from all sides, renewing questions that have followed millions of darker Americans:
What are you? Where are you from? And how do you fit into this country?
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“I prefer to be called black,” said Shawn Smith, an accountant from Houston. “How I really feel is, I’m American.”
“I don’t like African American. It denotes something else to me than who I am,” said Smith, whose parents are from Mississippi and North Carolina. “I can’t recall any of them telling me anything about Africa. They told me a whole lot about where they grew up in Macomb County and Shelby, N.C.”
Gibre George, an entrepreneur from Miami, started a Facebook page called “Don’t Call Me African-American” on a whim. It now has about 300 “likes.”
“We respect our African heritage, but that term is not really us,” George said. “We’re several generations down the line. If anyone were to ship us back to Africa, we’d be like fish out of water.”
“It just doesn’t sit well with a younger generation of black people,” continued George, who is 38. “Africa was a long time ago. Are we always going to be tethered to Africa? Spiritually I’m American. When the war starts, I’m fighting for America.”
Joan Morgan, a writer born in Jamaica who moved to New York City as a girl, remembers the first time she publicly corrected someone about the term: at a book signing, when she was introduced as African American and her family members in the front rows were appalled and hurt.
“That act of calling me African American completely erased their history and the sacrifice and contributions it took to make me an author,” said Morgan, a longtime U.S. citizen who calls herself Black-Caribbean American. (Some insist Black should be capitalized.)
She said people struggle with the fact that black people have multiple ethnicities because it challenges America’s original black-white classifications.
In her view, forcing everyone into a name meant for descendants of American slaves distorts the nature of the contributions of immigrants like her black countrymen Marcus Garvey and Claude McKay.
Morgan acknowledges her homeland of Jamaica is populated by descendants of African slaves. “But I am not African, and Africans are not African American,” she said.
In Latin, the color black is “niger.” In 1619, the first African captives in America were described as “negars,” which became the epithet still used by some today.
The Spanish word “negro” means black. That was the label applied by white Americans for centuries.
The word black also was given many pejorative connotations — a black mood, a blackened reputation, a black heart. “Colored” seemed better, until the civil-rights movement insisted on Negro, with a capital N.
Then, in the 1960s, “black” came back — as an expression of pride, a strategy to defy oppression.
“Every time black had been mentioned since slavery, it was bad,” says Mary Frances Berry, a University of Pennsylvania history professor and former chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Reclaiming the word “was a grass-roots move, and it was oppositional. It was like, ‘In your face.’ “
Afro American was briefly in vogue in the 1970s, and lingers today in the names of some newspapers and university departments. But it was overshadowed by African American, which first sprouted among the black intelligentsia.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson is widely credited with taking African American mainstream in 1988, before his second presidential run.
Berry remembers being at a 1988 gathering of civil-rights groups organized by Jackson in Chicago when Ramona Edelin, then president of the National Urban Coalition, urged those assembled to declare that black people should be called African American.
Edelin says today that there was no intent to exclude people born in other countries, or to eliminate the use of black: “It was an attempt to start a cultural offensive, because we were clearly at that time always on the defensive.”
“We said, this is kind of a compromise term,” she said. “There are those among us who don’t want to be referred to as African. And there also those among us who don’t want to be referred to as American. This was a way of bridging divisions among us or in our ideologies so we can move forward as a group.”
Jackson followed through with the plan. “Every ethnic group in this country has a reference to some land base, some historical, cultural base,”he said at the time. “African Americans have hit that level of cultural maturity.”
Today, it’s unclear what term is preferred. Gallup polls from 1991 to 2007 showed no strong consensus for either black or African American. In a January 2011 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 42 percent of respondents said they preferred black, 35 percent said African American, 13 percent said it doesn’t make any difference and 7 percent chose “some other term.”
Meanwhile, a record number of black people in America — almost 1 in 10 — were born abroad, according to census figures.
Tomi Obaro’s Nigerian-born parents brought her to America from England as a girl, and she became a citizen last year. Although she really is African American, the University of Chicago senior says the label implies she is descended from slaves. It also feels vague and liberal to her.
“It just sort of screams this political correctness,” Obaro said. She and her black friends rarely use it to refer to themselves, only when in “proper company.”
“Or it’s a word that people who aren’t black use to describe black people,” she said.
Or it’s a political tool. In a Senate race against Obama in 2004, Alan Keyes implied that Obama could not claim to share Keyes’ “African-American heritage” because Keyes’ ancestors were slaves.
In the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, some Hillary Rodham Clinton backers made similar comments about Obama.
Last year, Herman Cain, then a Republican presidential candidate, sought to contrast his roots in the Jim Crow South with Obama’s history, and he shunned the label African American in favor of “American black conservative.”
And then there are some white Americans who were born in Africa — African Americans.