Above are multiple terms used to identify people of African decent living in America. These identifiers have changed over time, because times change. The interaction between black people and how they view themselves, as well as how others view them, have changed, and words used to identify us as a people have changed, along with evolving ideologies and perspectives. Brought over from Africa to serve as slaves, Blacks eventually gained freedom but not equality. We were treated as second-class citizens. Blacks were finally granted equal rights but not the privileges afforded others, and the search for a common term, a name they could use to describe themselves, continues until today.
It started me asking some questions: Who chooses the names? What is the true meaning behind the choice? Does the name connect historically? Why is it so difficult to decide on a name and maintain it?
The changeable names used to describe Black Americans express a complex search for a cultural and racial identity!
Let's examine some of those names and what they mean in describing us as a people.
During slavery, Blacks arriving from Africa, naturally chose to call themselves Africans. However Blacks soon lost touch with the traditions of their homeland as a result of a strategy designed for their separation from their historical identity and culture. This strategy often separated children from their families at birth, allowing them no connection with their family. Furthermore, their exposure to racist representations that systematically portrayed Africans as heathen, ape-like savages running naked in the jungle soon led Blacks to reject the term (African) whose use, in their altered consciousness, evoked negative connotations. Hence African, as an identifier became obsolete. African became and remains in the minds of some people, an insult.
Both blacks and whites dismissed the term African as an identifier. The prevailing descriptive term became Negro. The word Negro is Spanish for black. The Spanish language derives from Latin, which has its origins in Classical Greek. The word Negro, in Greek, is derived from the root word necro, meaning dead. What was once referred to as a physical condition could now be regarded as an appropriate state of mind for millions of the African Diaspora. The term Negro denotes a race of dead people with a dead history and no hope for resurrection as long as they remained ignorant of their past. Although most Blacks up until the late 1960’s, including our leaders, like Martin Luther King, utilized the term it was ultimately rejected because it was a term that defined a painful past and was subscribed by others to describe us.
The word Colored (often spelled Coloured) soon became prevalent in the Black community. The word was synonymous with Negro. The term initially came about to describe the resulting offspring of forced sexual activity between oppressor and oppressed, this interaction resulted in a wider spectrum of skin complexions among blacks. Widely used until the beginning of the 20th century, the term Colored was later used to encompassed all non-Whites. Colored could include Blacks, Native Americans, Mexicans in the Southwest, and later Asians and Latinos, though it referred primarily to Blacks. The largest Black political association, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded in 1909, (by whites, but more on that in a later blog) and was initially started to further the social and political agenda of mulatto or "colored" offspring in white society.
The 1960's were a time of cultural resurrection. It was a time of collective awareness, when Afro hairstyles were in vogue and the "Black is Beautiful" movement was born. Many Blacks began to rediscover and embrace their African roots. The identifier, Black became the preferred term, sanctified by the Black Panthers and James Brown's song "Say it Loud: I'm Black and I'm Proud!". Black signifies a skin color, not an ethnic origin or cultural heritage. Initially it only applied to black people in America, even those of light complexion. It later was utilized to encompass the entire African Diaspora. Today, Black identifies a state of mind, or consciousness. There is no place called "Blackia" so in a technical sense there are no people that came from it's lands. Black is a term that unifies people of a similar ancestry and circumstance, but it does not reflect the history or cultural lineage of a people. The term Black has no cultural, or historical relationship to an actual place or a people. . The 1970s and 1980s gave birth to the many hyphenated terms that described modern America's ethnic minorities (Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans, etc. The Black community chose Afro-American, which had been used in writing since the beginning of the century. In an attempt to put the two components of the term on equal footing, Afro-American gave way to African-American and later African American. The hyphen was deleted as it implied the idea of a sub-category.
But does this new term resolve all our issues concerning identity? Have we truly stopped looking for new names? Although most people use African American, many Blacks argue that there is nothing African about them, and as such, the term does not represent them. The 1990 census revealed some issues, since many Blacks did not initially identify with the term Black, so the government added African American as a category instead. Jesse Jackson vehemently defended the term and explained why; "African American expresses a sense of belonging to a culture and, more important, creates a bridge between the African continent and the African Diaspora".
Why is the name we use to identify ourselves so important? Beside all the perceived cultural, social, and psychological reasons for coming to a consensus on whom we are as a people. It's really not about any of those things. It has been, and will always be about, one thing... POWER! In the allegory of Adam & Eve, Adam is given POWER to name things and as a result of being given this POWER, he is given dominion over that which he names. When we as a people permit others to name and define the parameters that define us. We give them dominion and ultimately, POWER over us!
Life can be learned backward,... but must be lived forward
We are Afrikans, living in America. This is the one aspect of our being that is common to all of us. Denying being Afrikan doesn't change that fact. Being an Afrikan is a state of mind, a state of consciousness, not necessarily the geographic location. Being an Afrikan connects us, unifies us and gives us the cultural foundation upon which we can define our evolution as a people. Our history should create our shared identity and based on that identity, we empower ourselves as a collective.
We are Black because we share a common circumstance. We are Afrikan because we share a common origin. We are American because we occupy a common land.
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