Image taken from Black vs Black: Divided as “One”
This is a topic that I thought about a couple of months ago, when one of my friends on Facebook was talking about some book that she says disparaged Black women, and another Black woman joined in the discussion to say that she preferred being called an African-American woman, which started a little side-discussion about the topic of what we preferred to be called. Most of us who joined in the discussion seemed to agree that we preferred Black to African-American. I made a few jokes on the topic, saying the famous James Brown song wouldn’t sound quite right if the chorus was “Say it loud, I’m African-American and I’m proud!”
Not to mention other sayings like: “Once you go African-American, you never go back.”
Or “African-American is beautiful.”
Those just don’t roll off the tongue, do they? And would the Black Panthers have been as intimidating to White People if they were called the African-American Panthers? I think not.
All jokes aside, I never felt fully comfortable using the term African-American, and therefor never used it to describe myself. When I grew up we were BLACK. And that’s that. I recall the exact first time I heard the phrase African-American, it was on an episode during one of the later seasons of The Cosby Show. Denise (Lisa Bonet) was talking to Olivia (Raven-Symone). Olivia was describing someone, and when she called him Black, Denise corrected her, saying “Say African-American.” And then when Olivia called another person White, Denise said “Say Caucasian.”
And for the record, that’s another word I never use. Caucasian. While technically correct, it just sounds odd.
But in the next few years, it seemed like the word African-American was being pushed more by various Civil Rights Activists and being used in the media. And I believe that I understand what the motive was behind the creation of this phrase. It was to give Blacks a sense of history, of belonging to something greater, to not just being described a color. And the word Black can have negative connotations to it. It’s “dark,” it’s “the opposite of white”. So shouldn’t we be more than just that?
So I get it. Really. But the thing is, I’m not African. I’ve never been to Africa. I don’t speak any African languages. The fact that I have ancestors who have originated from Africa doesn’t make me any more “African” than I am “European”, because I have ancestors from there, too. If you kidnapped me and dropped me off in the middle of the African continent, I’d be totally effing lost. I wouldn’t be saying “Yay! I’m home! It’s the Motherland!” I’d be saying “How the heck do I get home?!?” And by “home” I mean AMERICA.
I want to make it clear, that is NOT to say that I am ashamed of my African roots. Not at all. Not in the slightest. Part of me would like to travel there someday. But I’m just saying, point-blank, I know I’m not really African. So calling myself African-American almost makes me feel like I’m trying too hard to be something that I’m not. So just saying I’m Black works for me, and it always has. Even though I know that technically African-American probably is a better description for me than Black, because my skin is not “black.” I’m very light-brown. Or, depending on how much time I spend in the sun, I am “high-yellow.”
But if we want to be technically accurate then I should call myself Negro, or even Colored, even though those words aren’t widely used by Blacks anymore (outside of the United Negro College Fund and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). There is also the problem that African-American doesn’t fit every Black person in America, yet it becomes a lazy way to describe us. I remember when, years ago, Marvel Comics were marrying Black Panther and Storm, I saw an article about it that referred to Black Panther as the “first major African-American superhero,” even though he’s not American. He’s just African, period. See now if they’d just called him a Black superhero, it would have been fine.
There’s also the fact that this woman has a far more legitimate claim to being African-American than I do:
Charlize Theron, born and raised in South Africa, became a naturalized American Citizen in 2007
In conclusion, I don’t criticize anyone who does use that phrase to describe themselves or others. I’m not saying that it’s wrong. I’m just that for me, I consider myself Black. I was born Black. I live Black. And one day I will die Black. And I’m just fine with that.