There are many labels used to describe people of color living in America today. I grew up with the terms Negro and colored. Later the terms to describe people of color living in America became African-American or Afro-American. Later Black became an accepted description.
During my time living in Fiji, people would ask me where I was from and what was I? The question confused me at first. They were not use to seeing Black Americans other than President Obama on television. They wondered if I had an African mother like he did. They saw people in terms of the country they were from not in terms of color. I told them I was from America and preferred to be called Black rather than African-American as the president was known.
I do not like the term African-American. It denotes to me something other than who I am. At one point in my life, I was proud to say I was American, but that is no longer true. America has a color bias which constantly underscores what it means to be an American citizen. In his essay “The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American,” published in 1959, James Baldwin notes:
America’s history, her aspirations, her peculiar triumphs, her even more peculiar defeats, and her position in the world — yesterday and today — are all so profoundly and stubbornly unique that the very word “America” remains a new, almost completely undefined and extremely controversial proper noun. No one in the world seems to know exactly what it describes, not even we motley millions who call ourselves Americans.
With people who accentuate the color/racial lines running for political office and the disproportional killing of unarmed Black citizens the racial problems in America have come front and center again. This occurrence seems to take place during every election period when white candidates seek the minority votes. Americans are seen by politicians in groups based upon color. The white vote. The brown vote. The Black vote. No one seeks the red vote because they no longer exist in the minds of politicians.
The term African-American does not denote where I came from. I was born in Trenton, New Jersey. It does not denote my race because that would be Negroid if I wanted to be politically and scientifically correct.
I prefer the term “Black” (capitalized because it refers to a people and not a color) over African-American. I, too, wore a dashiki during my college days as a symbol of African identity because as Black people living in an unfriendly country, we sought to establish roots with a motherland somewhere. I had an afro hairstyle which we called “natural,” but there was nothing natural about it. The afro required a lot if work to maintain and sparked an unprecedented growth in Black hair products. I was a member of the Black Student Union and participated in protests to bring about equal representation and rights for Black students and citizens, (the same things Black students are fighting for today, almost 50 years later), but I had no direct ties to Africa. As Black students, we greeted each other in Swahili and a secret handshake, but those few phrases were the only words we knew of an African language. The handshake was later co-opted by whites and lost its significant.
My great grandfather was a Cherokee. He married my great grandmother who was Black. His picture hung on the wall in my grandparents home for many years before one day I asked my grandfather who was that “Indian” in the picture and he said, “He is my father, your great grandfather.” My grandfather considered himself to be Black. He would rather be referred to as a “negro” than a “halfbreed.” My uncle John often told tales of how he passed for white in order to get into the “white only” movie theaters in Virginia. I had cousins from the same parents who could “pass.” One would only date white men and the other would only date Black women. In those days your complexion carried more weight than the name one used to identify him/her self.
I will never be just an “American.” The racial prejudice of America is too ingrained for that to happen and now I have made the decision to no longer live within her racist boarders.
An Indian (the nation) friend living in Fiji described herself as a Black Indian which in the caste system of India made her different from the lighter skinned Indians. Her black skin made her feel the same as women in America confronting the corporate glass ceilings. She was restricted socially, politically, and economically by an old unwritten system even in Fiji.
“Why would you want to call yourself Black, your skin is not black like mine,” she asked?
I explained to her how Black people in America had also discriminated between ourselves based upon shades of color as they did in India. American society had made exceptions for lighter skinned Blacks over darker skinned Blacks. In the 70’s we adopted the term Black as a unifying factor within our own race. I prefer the term Black because of its power. We took a term used by white people to identify us in a negative manner and converted it to a term we used to identify ourselves in a positive manner. That choice, for me, makes the term Black more powerful and identifying than African-American. It also has no physical connections to America.
I do not see an end to racial identification. Our world is one of borders where the differences between people and nations are more accentuated than the similarities. I would like to see a world where all of its citizens are classified as human, but I will not see that in my lifetime.
So, “Say it loud…..!”
James Brown (May 3, 1933 – December 25, 2006)
Listen to James Brown sing I’m Black and I’m Proud here.