define: african-american

African-American [n/adj] – an ethnic group of Americans (citizens or residents of the United States) who are the descendants of enslaved Africans.

This will likely be the most controversial post in the define series, likely because there is no real consensus as to how the term African-American should be used. Depending on who you talk to and when you talk to them, the term is either readily used as an umbrella for Black people in the New World, which I will attempt to prove prejudicial, or that the term is a politically correct way of referring to Black people, which is also, in a way, incorrect. A search on Wiktionary will reveal that the word African-American is typically used to refer to people who are 1) American and black 2) Black 3) Black American, all of which ignore the history which slavery has played in creating our experience and solidifying our unique ethnic identity.

I was against the term African-American when I was younger because I saw something in that word to which I could not connect — Africa. To me, Africa was a mythical place, like Aztlan, from which my ancestors were pulled by the millions in order to cross the edge of the world to work on plantations in North and South Carolina. Africa, like most Americans believed, was a continent of wilderness and alleged savagery and I was pushed away from the concept, seeing my Americanness somehow as being a more reformed — perhaps even evolved — form of that which my ancestors once were. I used the word Black because of the political implications of such a word. It means ugly, hated, sickly and rotten; how apt a word to describe our condition as what seems to be the world’s most detested, mocked, and imitated people?

I began to think of African-American as a marker of ethnicity and not race last year. When you grow up as a racialized individual, it becomes increasingly difficult for you to understand how your ethnicity, that part of you which almost seems to undercut all else, but still, elusively, remains outside of your conscious vision of yourself, plays a role in your self-identification. I saw my friends speaking Spanish or Creole to their parents and yearned for an ethnic possession of my own — a language, a cooking style, a homeland. I found my Americanness to be stifling, for I only existed within the context of this nation, had no tangible ties to the worlds across the waters. Even the white kids who talked about being half-this and a-quarter-that could name countries I could point to on a map, but when my brother had an ancestry project in elementary school, my mother was forced to arbitrarily pick an African country and tell him “say that this (Nigeria) is where our family comes from.”

I was taking a class on the Gullah/Geechee, thinking with my academic hat on about the thin line between ethnicity and race which the Gullah must walk. As a Black people, the Gullah are easily distinguishable, but at the same time, they possess their own ethnic identity within African-Americanness. They have their own specific language (Gullah), an ancestral homeland (The Georgia Lowcountry & the Sea Islands), their own traditions and celebrations (e.g. sweetgrass basket-weaving), and practice their own forms of art and religion. They exist as one of the last remaining American creole cultures, and this made them exotic and different to white writers like Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Colcock Jones, Jr and Julia Peterkin. They saw that “these negroes” were different from the rest whose language had long-since been established as the talk of the biologically inferior and unintelligent. There was a certain twang in the Gullah speech, in their usage of unintelligible terms, in their seemingly Islamic religious practices, which made them stand out, and white authors profited from this otherness, used it to boost their careers and establish themselves as folklorists and prolific writers. The Gullah often had reservations about their representations in these white works, but had little power to do anything about it. The woman on which Scarlet Sister Mary, written by Julia Peterkin in 1928, is based did not like Peterkin’s portrayal of her or her story at all, but it did not matter. Peterkin would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for her work.

By analyzing the Gullah, I was able to understand what it meant to be African-American by realizing that the Gullah contrasted the general “masses” of Black people who existed on the mainland of the US. Because of certain conditions like environment, the post-1809 importation of enslaved Africans, and system of servitude which favored, according to historians, the independent production of Gullah culture, the Gullah emerged with their own separate identity within the larger spectrum of the African-American experience. They are racially black, historically African-American, and ethnically Gullah, and  must navigate their existence with these three identities which often seem to be at odds with one another.

I am an African-American because I cannot pick a particular country my ancestors came here from. I cannot say “My great-grandfather in 1898 took his entire family from a village in Togo and came to the US to start a better life” because there are few records, if any at all, documenting who my ancestors are and where they came from. The word Africa transcends the mythical understanding of this “land of my ancestors” and becomes literal — my ancestors came from somewhere in Africa hundreds of years ago, and my family has been here ever since. Even if I were to do those genetic tests to determine where I come from, the results would likely show a spectrum of areas, for Africans were brought in from all different parts, thrown into the same plantation, and forced to function as an ensemble without having any means of communication save what few scraps of English they could learn. I cannot change this history, nor do I wish to change it. I have adopted by way of my upbringing African-American traditions and customs, for this is my culture, my understanding of myself, my worldview. It is my ethnicity, and it is my patrimony.

I am Black because I cannot escape my race. Race is how I am perceived from the outside based on a loose set of arbitrary criteria. I have curly brown hair, brown skin, a flat “Negro” nose, and brown eyes — typical characteristics which are used, in our trained psychosocial programming, to identify a person as belonging to the Black race. This is my condition, an imposed facet of my identity which links me to other similar-looking people. In a world without vision, this marker holds little meaning.

The 19th and early 20th centuries sought desperately to remove from African-Americans their ancestral heritage to Africa. The same happened in the Caribbean and continental Africa as well, this process of cultural colonization. The Europeans came in and established their rule in Africa, enforcing their customs and ways of governing. The enslaved were set free, but still bound through a system of racial dominance which encouraged miscegenation and interracial relationships in order to escape the perils of one’s Blackness. White aesthetics were heralded, black aesthetics demonized. White women became the end-all of Black male sexuality (see: Soul on Ice) while the Black woman became among the most sexualized and loathed of the world’s people (see: Lemonade). It became indoctrinated into the colonial consciousness that no decent culture existed before the arrival of the Europeans in Africa, that the French and the Dutch and the Portuguese and the British and the Americans had brought with them civilization, culture and technology, that before Europe there was no Africa. This process sought to strip African-Americans –as it did the Senegalese and Haitians and the Australian Aborigines — of their understanding of themselves as a people, attempting to establish an impossible regime of assimilation which could never transcend race. Colonialism creates promises which the colonizers themselves are unable to keep, for they have fooled themselves into believing the myths they’ve created about what blackness is and what it is not. Thus you can never become white, which is the end-goal they’ve placed in our minds. Even if you acquire their possessions, and gain entrance into their institutions, and speak their language, and eat their food — you will never belong.

It wasn’t until Melville Herskovits’ The Myth of the Negro Past in 1941 when academics began to transition — slowly — away from the idea that Africans were blank slates devoid of culture before they were brought to the United States. Herskovits sought to draw a link between African-American and African cultural practices, demonstrating that the same traditions which constituted a part of African life on the continent continued to play a role in African-American lives. Slavery had not stripped us of our cultures, but had transformed them and synthesized them to best fit our new environment. Of course Herskovits was contested for his work, for he was saying something very few had ever fathomed before. It was so much a part of common thought for both Black and White people to identify with “American values” and the crafted narrative of American history that the book was criticized from both sides of the racial line.

It is so thoroughly ingrained into our minds that African-Americans are devoid of culture that our own labels seem to lack legitimacy. When we refer to Black culture, we refer to African, Caribbean and American cultures, shared by hundreds of ethnic groups. This is often not really what we have in mind — we mean African-American culture. Yet, when we talk about the murders of African-American men — in particular, although women, like Sandra Bland, have also been slain — by the police, this is also often not what we really mean. We mean the murder of Black men*, like Ahmadou Diallo, a Guinean man who was killed by the police in 1999, or Patrick Dorismond, a Haitian-American who was shot by police in 2000 or Ousmane Zongo, a Burkinabé man killed in 2003 during a warehouse raid. The conflation between race and ethnicity is so much deeper than I can possibly discuss in such a space as a blog post, but it will likely be an issue I will spend years of my academic career researching. We must find new ways of accepting ourselves as authentic individuals, while also making strides towards establishing solidarity with everyone born into the stiflingly undefined condition of blackness.

My last point — I could talk for hours on the topic, but I really do need to wrap things up — is an issue which has bothered me for years. It is about Barack Obama, who is commonly referred to as the first African-American president. This is not true. True, Obama’s father is from Kenya, a country in Africa, but this does not make Obama African-American. This is the form of African-American which is a term of political correctness, which is sounds nicer given the connotations of the word black, but also confuses speakers, and in the end, removes from actual African-Americans their ethnic identity. The child of emigrant Sierra Leonean parents is not African-American, even if his parents come form Africa. They are Sierra Leonean American, because they can trace their ancestry back to Sierra Leone, a country which now exists on a map. A woman who has a African-American mother and a Congolese father is Congolese-American and African-American ethnically. She possess two ethnicities and belong to two separate cultures. Obama is Kenyan American, his father coming from Kenya, a country with borders and an army and a government, but he is also American, for he was born in the United States and therefore is a US citizen. He is a Black man because he is visibly Black, but he is not African-American. Using someone’s country name in their ethnic markers — Nigerian American, Anglo-Kenyan, Franco-Senegalese — begins the process of dispelling the myth of the African country while also validating the populations which have existed there — African-American, Afro-British, Afro-French — which have existed there for centuries and have lost contact with the civilizations from which they originally hailed. These cultures are not bastards, but creoles. They are deserving of our respect, for their identities matter. Black identities matter.


* It was brought to my attention by a reader that my mentioning of the murders of Black men by police also ignores atrocities committed to women as well.

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