General: African American or Black-What do you prefer to be called?

Published by: on Thursday August 2nd, 2012

The most popular question I received from white people on this blog journey exploring race and culture was “African-American or Black; what do you want to be called?” and understandably so, since so many people have debated the legitimacy of calling black Americans “African-Americans” over the years. In order to answer this question we need to first explore the history of the term. Now I have searched high and low for hardcore evidence of the use of the term as far back as the17th and 18th centuries because I have read claims of this in my research, but I have not been able to locate actual primary sources showing usage of the term. To start, there are many terms referring to persons of color considered obsolete by most, namely -Negro (still acceptable in certain contexts but not widely), colored, mulatto, mixed (still acceptable),biracial (acceptable and most current), quadroon, octoroon, quintroon and when you add other countries/languages the list goes on. Note that the term “negro” is widely acceptable and considered respectable in many Spanish speaking countries, but it is also pronounced differently (“nay-gro” not “nee-gro”)in those places.

I have read that the term “African-American” was used by W.E.B Dubois, the black historian, sociologist, Pan-Africanist, editor, author and civil rights activist. I have also read that it has been used by Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican-American who was a publisher, journalist, entrepreneur and orator who was a staunch proponent of the Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism movements. In all honesty, the use of the term (especially by Marcus Garvey) makes sense in my opinion, given his tireless efforts towards a massive emigration of black Americans back to Africa. Let me say this very carefully because someone is bound to tell me that I said something that I did not. I did not say that such evidence and primary sources did not exist, I said I could not locate any such primary sources using the term “African-American” in those time periods.

Now, let’s fast forward to the 20th century to Jesse Jackson who is in my opinion, a wannabe MLK Jr, a prominent race-baitor but who has actually done some good (had to throw that in for the Jesse-ites). According to Wikipedia, he is:

“an African-American civil rights activist and Baptist minister. He was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988 and served as shadow senator for the District of Columbia from 1991 to 1997. He was the founder of both entities that merged to form Rainbow/PUSH. Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr. is his eldest son. In an AP-AOL “Black Voices” poll in February 2006, Jackson was voted “the most important black leader”

In 1988, as Jesse Jackson made his second run for president, he publicly recommended use of the term “African-American” in order to reflect the connection of black Americans to Africa. Jesse Jackson is indeed responsible for mainstream use of the term in modern culture but it is actually a myth that the term’s origins can be traced back to him as the creator of it. The term African American was coined by a black man named Dr. Johnny Duncan, whom most of you probably have not heard of. He was inspired to create the term after he read a sign which read “THE LAST FOUR LETTERS OF AMERICAN spell I-CAN” while serving in the US Army in Georgia. In 1985 while on an overseas discharge in Germany, he published his first (and to my knowledge the first) of a series of annual Black history calendars containing his poem, “I Can” in which the debut of the term “African-American” appeared.

For the record, Jesse Jackson has never said directly that he coined the term but the problem is that he has allowed so many others to think just that. To date, he has never credited Dr. Duncan’s poem, which he saw in a calendar sent by the author to Coretta Scott-King, for coining the term. Allowing others to give him false credit is equivalent to claiming the credit in my book. But hey, this is the same man who claimed to have held the dying MLK Jr, heard his last words (telling Jesse to lead the people) and had his shirt stained by his blood, which was a lie. In 1991 Jackson admitted to fathering a child out of wedlock– after praying with former first lady Hillary Clinton at the White House  after her husband’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. Oh, I know the pattern of deceit is hard to see but trust me it’s there . The term became so popular that even the US Census began using it in its data gathering. Before the use of African American, the term “black” was popular in use after the Black Power movement of the sixties, although at one time it was considered offensive, particularly, at the time when use of the term “Negro” was popular and preferred.

In Gallup polls consistently from 1991-2007, most black people surveyed held no preference and said that it didn’t matter to them which term is used to describe them, and personally I agree. Now I prefer the term “black” and this is because although I share DNA with Africans, culturally, I have very little in common with them. We play football, go to prom, eat hotdogs at baseball games and participate in so many activities and rituals that are uniquely American. We are more American than African and that is why I prefer “Black-American” but I do not condemn those who prefer African-American as they want a name for themselves to express a tie to their African roots. I think that is the key from that side of the argument – it’s a name black people gave themselves and some prefer to name themselves rather than utilize names that another culture has placed upon them – it is a waste of time and folly to debate this in my view. It is also folly to make a huge deal out of being called or identified by “black” if you prefer “African-American” or vice versa, because the person doing so does not mean any harm nor does it have a negative connotation in and of itself.

Secondly, Africa is a continent, not a country. Unlike other racial/ethnic hyphenated names like “Irish- American” or “Kenyan-American”, African-American is quite vague – which country in Africa? Africa is probably one of the most culturally diverse continents on the planet so if you can’t be specific about which country, I say use “black” but again, that’s just my opinion. Of course we could establish a general rule of thumb and law, that all African immigrants must distinguish themselves from black Americans by specifying which country in Africa they are from, before the hyphen (and perhaps place ____ – American on all applicable forms/documents), leaving the vague term “African-American” for black Americans only, but is it really that serious? Of course these days one can find out approximately which African country their ancestors likely came from through advanced genetic genealogy testing.

Now it’s important to note that one important reason critics of the term “black” don’t like it is because “black” people are not actually physically the color black and for that matter neither are “white” people but that’s a weak criticism because they are colloquial terms – relax. Then there are others who assert that African-American is losing popularity because of the lack of historical relevance to those born in America. Furthermore, it is a confusing term – after all, wouldn’t a white African immigrant to America be an African-American? White people, even though I prefer “black” I could care less if you called me African-American and I suspect most black people, even if they have a preference, will lose no sleep over it if you refer to them by either term.

As for me, like Herman Cain, I am an American – unhyphenated, who just happens to be black. Let’s leave the hyphens to immigrants who come to America and sweeten the melting pot with their unique cultures, which makes this country so great to begin with. Next time: Tune in for the second most popular question from black people to white people, “Why do white people pretend like slavery and racism didn't/don't exist? Why don't white people support reparations?”