What does it mean to be African American? This is a question that is quietly resurfacing in Black discourse, due to the fact that many of our people are rejecting the term as a means of identification. While African American still manages to be socially accepted, it seems many privately take issue with the term. I’ll admit, I’m one of those people. I have never truly felt connected to 'African American,' yet have never felt compelled to argue my standpoint publicly because our discussions on identity tend to be dividing and non-productive. However, I believe it’s a topic worth re-examining, as the term has been the questionable dashiki in the room for quite some time.
I have never been offended by the use of 'African American,' but personally there a few reasons I don’t particularly like the term. I have used it in my writing when making efforts to be politically correct, or as an alternative reference to Black people. Yet I have always viewed it as just that: a politically correct alternative to Black. Never something I whole-heartedly embraced. I have checked it on applications, but never used it to self-identify in real-life. It has always felt forced, redundant, and quite frankly, inaccurate. Using the term 'African American' feels like using Kente cloth made in China trying desperately to authenticate myself. In theory I know where I'm from, but in actuality I wasn’t made there.
I’m very much aware that my ancestors were from Africa, and in no way would I want to distance myself from that fact. From an early age my family taught me the painful context of our history in this country, and also that our history as a people did not begin solely with slavery. We come from great peoples and civilizations, and it’s something that has always given me a sense of pride and dignity. However, knowing all of this, there is still no way to pinpoint exactly where my African ancestors came from. Therefore, I have no direct lineage, specific heritage, language or traditions to lay claim to.
I see 'African American' as both ambiguous and limiting at the same time. It’s an ethno-cultural term that has become synonymous with race and “regular Black folks.” It’s used exclusively in reference to Black people in the U.S. who are descendants of the Transatlantic slave trade, yet excludes anyone who is an African immigrant or first-generation citizen–who in my opinion would be most fitting of the title. African American is also very vague and simplified. Africa is a vast continent, made up of various nations, cultures, languages, traditions, etc. So to associate myself namely with the continent, without a specific point of reference, doesn’t bring me any closer to my roots, yet it subtly reinforces the misconception that Africa is a simplistic, homogeneous land.
The history of the term is said to have begun with poet and civil rights activists, Johnny Duncan. In 1987, his poem “I Can” was published in the Black History Calendar. Towards the end of the poem he writes: “The last 4 letters of my African Heritage and American creed spell "I can"!” It was this line that inspired Jesse Jackson to coin the term and he along with other civil rights leaders began to encourage Black people to begin using it shortly after. During a 1988 press conference to discuss a national Black agenda, Jackson confidently announced that Black people now preferred to be called 'African American,' opting for an ethnic term opposed to a racial one. He stated that “to be called African American has cultural integrity,” citing groups like Italian Americans and Arab Americans as examples.
While I can understand why one would want to have a distinct cultural identity, the difference between our people and the ethnic groups Jesse Jackson referenced that day to support his statement, is that they all came here willingly, as immigrants. And of course, we did not. In addition to this, we have systematically been far removed from our cultures of origin. Making our ethnicity and nationality far more complex.
Finally, 'African American' just does not invoke the same bold pride as Black does. (And I’ve always suspected that was one of the reasons we’ve been encouraged to use it). During the heights of Black consciousness and the Black Power Movement throughout the 60s and 70s, when everything black had previously been associated with inferiority and despair, our people began redefining and embracing it as a means of identification. It took on a spirit of self-pride, self-love, dignity and even resistance. And we began opting out of terms that had been previously imposed on us such as colored and negro.
Black connects me with that struggle. Black also connects me to my people throughout the world, whether they are in South America, the Caribbean, Africa or elsewhere. I identify as Black in terms of race, American (by default) in terms of nationality; always keeping in mind that my ancestry ties me to Africa and the original peoples of this earth. To me, Black unites us beyond our various geographic locations, nationalities or cultures; whereas we can all say we are Black, connected and proud.