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Commentary : A Vote Against Use of ‘African-American’

<i> Phillip T. Gay is an associate professor of sociology at San Diego State University</i>

I’m a black American, I teach a course on American race and ethnic relations at San Diego State University, and, after giving the matter very serious thought, I’ve finally decided that I disagree with those who propose that I and other black Americans henceforth be known as “African-Americans.”

Those in favor of the name change argue that the term “African-American” provides a greater sense of cultural roots, cultural heritage and historical homeland, as well as a greater sense of definition.

I disagree, first of all, because I don’t believe, nor have I seen evidence, that black Americans--any more than any other group of Americans--lack a sense of their cultural roots. Black American culture is, by definition, rooted in the life situations and experiences of black people in America.

All but a relatively few contemporary black Americans descend from persons brought to this country roughly between the years 1619 and 1850, by force, uprooted from their ancestral homelands and placed in an entirely new and vastly different cultural milieu--to which they had to adapt rapidly. And, in adapting to the impoverished conditions of slavery and second-class citizenship, they created a black American culture, consisting of, among other things: a distinctly black American cuisine of low-cost edibles more indigenous to Europe and the New World than to Africa, a distinctly black American patois firmly rooted in the English language, relatively distinct black American patterns of familial organization and distinctly black American religious practices grounded in Christianity, a non-African religion.

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The truth of the matter, then, is that the overwhelming majority of black Americans are, at the very least, six or seven generations culturally removed from Africa. They speak no African language. Their religious beliefs and practices are non-African. Their daily cuisine is non-African. Their marital and family structures are typically non-African. They have no relatives in Africa, and they have never themselves been to Africa.

As black “Americans,” they are, like it or not, the bearers of a distinctly American cultural heritage, which is why black Africans most frequently refer to visiting Americans as “American,” or “white,” regardless of the skin tone of the visitor. They, too, recognize the cultural differences between themselves and black Americans. Practically everyone does, really.

The culturally significant links to Africa were broken during the years of slavery. A name change might obscure that fact, but it won’t change it.

I also don’t think the new term would serve to give black Americans a greater (i.e. more accurate) sense of definition.

Black Americans appear to already have a quite strong sense of who they are. Look at all the times they have united in opposition to racial discrimination. Witness their overwhelming support for black candidates for political office. Witness their common life conditions. Witness the importance of skin color in America. How could black Americans not know who they are?

Nor do I see the term African-American as providing black Americans a greater sense of homeland. In fact, it is more likely to provide a false sense of homeland.

A homeland is a place that one can return to. Most black Americans can’t return home to Africa, because they were never there in the first place, culturally or otherwise. Nor were their parents, their grandparents or their great-great-great-grandparents. Blacks have now been in America for more than 350 years, as slaves and as workers in all occupations. They have fought in every American war.

They have fought and died to make America live up to its Christian ideals. America is the black American homeland. What other group has more of a right to call America its homeland? The term “black American” tends to affirm that right, emphasizing both the Americanness and the uniqueness of the black American experience.

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So why adopt a term that offers black Americans a false sense of homeland? What purpose will that serve? Whose actual, concrete, material, life situation will it improve? Someone who gets paid for making speeches and writing books and articles about blacks, perhaps. But I’m not even sure about that. Maybe not.

Another argument in favor of African-American is that “black is a color; and African-American is a nationality.” I only half agree. Black is definitely a color; but African-American is definitely not a nationality. Just as European-American is not a nationality. Persons who share a common nationality do so by virtue of sharing a common membership in and identification with a particular nation. American is a nationality. Liberian is a nationality. Spanish is a nationality. African and African-American are not nationalities, because Africa is not a nation. Africa is a continent, home to many nations, many cultures, many religions, many languages, many races.

African-American obscures more than it illuminates or explains. Black American, however, describes a distinct type of American with a distinct cultural heritage. It also acknowledges the fact that the color of one’s skin is still of great consequence in America. Why not go with the truest term? What’s wrong with black Americans calling themselves and being called black Americans? I don’t see anything wrong with that.


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