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African American: In defense of the term

A montage blend of African American faces close up, both men and women with different shades and colors in skin tone. Melanin beauty.

by J. Pharoah Doss, For New Pittsburgh Courier

In 1988 Rev. Jesse Jackson urged Black Americans to drop the adjective “Black” and replace it with “African”. Jackson argued that “Black” no longer described “our” situation in America. The term African American was used for decades. Then Jesse Jackson fell from grace and his “invented term” fell out of favor.

Motown legend Smokey Robinson recently told an interviewer he hated being called an African American. Robinson said the term disclaimed all the contributions that Black people have made to America.

Many Black conservatives rejected the term because they felt more American than African. Other Black people said they preferred “Black” because they weren’t from Africa.

Since the number of African immigrants in the United States has tripled since the 1990s, many Black Americans believe the term African American more accurately describes these immigrants and not them. Moreover, the adjective African is not synonymous with Black, White billionaire Elon Musk was born in Africa and is also an American.

These reasons don’t take into account two details.

1). Many people from the African continent who have immigrated to the U.S. think the term “African American” should only refer to Black Americans because the term omits their specific cultural heritage. People from Ghana, Liberia, Niger, Ethiopia, etc., have different languages, cultures, and histories. These immigrants prefer to be identified by their nationality or their specific African ethnic group. No one collectively labels people from France, Germany, and Italy as Europeans nor are Canadians and Mexicans lumped together as North Americans.

2). Jesse Jackson didn’t just conjure up the term. At the start of the African slave trade, Portugal and Spain labeled their captives by their dark skin color because they didn’t know the differences between tribes. Therefore, all dark Africans became Negroes. After the American slaves were emancipated, the Spanish word for “Black” stuck. Later, a Baltimore publisher believed the descendants of slaves formed their own ethnic group in America and should be named accordingly. In 1892 this publisher created one of the first Black newspapers in the United States, and it was called the Afro-American. Jesse Jackson simply replaced the prefix for Africa with the whole term African.

There are two more problems with these reasons.

1). They’re superficial.

2). They don’t put the “post-slavery identity crisis” into historical context.

Historically, Negro is a White supremacist term. It was always a badge of inferiority. Then second-class citizenship became synonymous with—Negro—after the Supreme Court legalized segregation in 1896.

In 1903 W.E.B. Dubois studied the post-slavery identity crisis and defined it as “double-consciousness”. Dubois explained Negroes always feel their two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two warring ideals in one dark body. The Negro simply wishes to make it possible to be both a Negro and an American, but a segregated society won’t allow the merger.

The Supreme Court eventually declared segregation unconstitutional in 1954 based on the results of an experiment with Black and White baby dolls that proved segregation produced a negative self-image in Negro children. The Negro children preferred the White doll, rejected playing with the Black doll, and wanted to be White instead of Negro.

Double-consciousness evolved into an inferiority complex.

At this point, the Negro community realized looking at themselves through the eyes of White America was to their detriment. As Civil Rights victories accumulated during the 1960s, the word Negro was replaced with Black and Black communities began to promote “Black pride”. However, John Oliver Killens wrote in Black Man’s Burden, “The root of the problem is the Negro Invention. So now here comes the question: Who will uninvent the Negro? It is important for us to know that our history did not begin with slavery’s scars.”

Switching from the Spanish term Negro to the English word black didn’t uninvent the Negro. Promoting “Black pride” addressed the inferiority complex but not double-consciousness.

When Jesse Jackson said “Black” no longer describes our situation in America, he meant Black people were no longer a permanent fixture at the bottom of White supremacy. More importantly, the term African American eliminated double-consciousness, the warring of the soul was over. The former Negro was now a descendant from Africa who can simultaneously be an American.

Those were the guiding principles behind the term African American.

But defending the term is hopeless when celebrities like hip hop icon Suge Knight stated he’d rather be called an N-word than an African American.


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