Why “Black” and not “African-American”?
Last week in the Political Correctness post I mentioned that I have not fought for the use of the term African-American to describe myself or others of my ethnicity. Over the years I’ve been asked why this is and I’ve given various answers. Some of them flip, some of them surface, none that really gets into the meat of it. It is, after all, a long conversation.
Good thing I have a blog!
The main reason I prefer the term Black is, I admit, habit. When I was growing up that was the term in use. We’d moved on from the terms Negroes, Colored People, and even Afro-Americans. I also remember “People of Color”, though don’t know how long that lasted before. For the most part, the people in my family and on TV referred to those of African Descent as Black.
When the term African-American came into vogue I sometimes referred to myself that way, but not all of the time. It felt like a very formal term. One people used in term papers or on the news. Not something I would call myself. Though for a while I struggled to use it whenever I talked about Black people because I thought it was important to do so. African-American highlights the fact that most Black people in America today are the descendants of Africans. It’s where we came from, and it shows that we’re proud of that fact.
There was, of course, backlash against the term. Some would say, “I’m American, and that’s all.” Others would point out that no one ever called recent African immigrants African-Americans. And still more people would whip out that tired business about “If a white person is born in Africa and then moves here, why aren’t they African-American, too?” So much wankery.
I have no problem with the term African-American, per se. I wouldn’t object to someone referring to me as one. But I don’t use it for myself or (very often) for others. One reason is that I still feel it’s an overly formal term. Use it in academic papers or in news reports and even on Census forms. That is appropriate. However, we have to remember that the term African-American contains a key word: American.
A few years ago an editor put out a call for submissions to an anthology of horror stories written by Black authors. However, when he first posted the call, he used the term African-American authors. There was a bit of discussion amongst writers of color about how annoying this was. The editor wanted Black authors, but by using the term African-American without thought, he made it seem like authors from Canada, the Caribbean, Africa, and just about anywhere outside of America were not welcome. That wasn’t his intent, of course, but it was just another example in a long string of such behavior.
African-American excludes non-American Blacks. And though American Blacks have a lot in common because of our history in America, we aren’t the only people of the Diaspora who were oppressed, enslaved, or are the descendants of those who were. We have a lot in common with Black people all over the globe. Our issues are not always uniquely American.
This is also why I sometimes refer to myself as a Person of Color. It connects me to folks who may not be Black, but with whom I have a lot in common. Some of the issues I have are definitely Black Issues. Some are Issues Concerning People of Color.
It’s all about using language in a more precise way. And as these recent posts illustrate, I’m all about language at the moment. The words we use are powerful.