Why I’m Black, Not African American
It’s time we descendants of slaves brought to the United States let go of the term “African American” and go back to calling ourselves Black -- with a capital B.
Modern America is home now to millions of immigrants who were born in Africa. Their cultures and identities are split between Africa and the United States. They have last names like Onwughalu and Senkofa. They speak languages like Wolof, Twi, Yoruba and Hausa, and speak English with an accent. They were raised on African cuisine, music, dance and dress styles, customs and family dynamics. Their children often speak or at least understand their parents’ native language.
Living descendants of slaves in America neither knew their African ancestors nor even have elder relatives who knew them. Most of us worship in Christian churches. Our cuisine is more southern U.S. than Senegalese. Starting with ragtime and jazz, we gave America intoxicating musical beats based on African conceptions of rhythm, but with melody and harmony based on Western traditions.
Also, we speak English. Black Americans’ home speech is largely based on local dialects of England and Ireland. Africa echoes in the dialect only as a whisper, in certain aspects of sound and melody. A working-class black man in Cincinnati has more in common with a working-class white man in Providence than with a Ghanaian.
With the number of African immigrants in the U.S. nearly tripling since 1990, the use of “African American” is becoming increasingly strained. For example, Alan Keyes, the Republican Senate candidate in Illinois, has claimed that as a descendant of slaves, he is the “real” African American, compared with his Democratic rival, Barack Obama, who has an African father and white mother. And the reason Keyes and others are making arguments such as this is rather small, the idea being that “African American” should refer only to people with a history of subordination in this country -- as if African immigrants such as Amadou Diallo, who was killed by police while reaching for his wallet, or Caribbean ones such as torture victim Abner Louima have found the U.S. to be the Land of Oz.
We are not African to any meaningful extent, but we are not white either -- and that is much of why Jesse Jackson’s presentation of the term “African American” caught on so fast. It sets us apart from the mainstream. It carries an air of standing protest, a reminder that our ancestors were brought here against their will, that their descendants were treated like animals for centuries, and that we have come a long way since then.
But we need a way of sounding those notes with a term that, first, makes some sense and, second, does not insult the actual African Americans taking their place in our country. And our name must also celebrate our history here, in the only place that will ever be our home. To term ourselves as part “African” reinforces a sad implication: that our history is basically slave ships, plantations, lynching, fire hoses in Birmingham, and then South Central, and that we need to look back to Mother Africa to feel good about ourselves.
But what about the black business districts that thrived across the country after slavery was abolished? What about Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Du Bois, Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wright and Thurgood Marshall, none born in Africa and all deeply American people? And while we’re on Marshall, what about the civil rights revolution, a moral awakening that we gave to ourselves and the nation. My roots trace back to working-class Black people -- Americans, not foreigners -- and I’m proud of it. I am John Hamilton McWhorter the Fifth. Four men with my name and appearance, doing their best in a segregated America, came before me. They and their dearest are the heritage that I can feel in my heart, and they knew the sidewalks of Philadelphia and Atlanta, not Sierra Leone.
So, we will have a name for ourselves -- and it should be Black. “Colored” and “Negro” had their good points but carry a whiff of Plessy vs. Ferguson and Bull Connor about them, so we will let them lie. “Black” isn’t perfect, but no term is.
Meanwhile, the special value of “Black” is that it carries the same potent combination of pride, remembrance and regret that “African American” was designed for. Think of what James Brown meant with “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud.” And then imagine: “Say it loud, I’m African American and I’m proud.”
Since the late 1980s, I have gone along with using “African American” for the same reason that we throw rice at a bride -- because everybody else was doing it. But no more. From now on, in my writings on race I will be returning to the word I grew up with, which reminds me of my true self and my ancestors who worked here to help make my life possible: Black.
John McWhorter, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is the author of “Authentically Black” (Gotham Books, 2003).