Black, African-American...What Do You Call Yourself?
Terms Blacks Have Used To Define Themselves Over Time
It’s been nearly 150 years since blacks were emancipated, yet many black Americans still struggle to identify themselves, both racially and culturally, in a country where slavery is gone but social, economic and political constraints remain.
Names and labels have always been important in the history of African Americans. Particularly since slavery stripped generations of people of their names, languages, customs and heritage, black Americans appreciate the power of words to define and even celebrate cultural identity.
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Today, many use the terms “Black” and “African American” interchangeably when talking about anyone with African ancestry and roots in the United States. Still, each term can cause conflict. Many argue that the term “black” encompasses a pan-African identity that includes Caribbean peoples. Others prefer “African American” because they feel “black” categories them (inaccurately) by skin color alone, ignoring history and culture.
“Identity is fascinating,” says Ytasha Womack, author of Post Black: How a New Generation Is Redefining African American Identity. “The quest to define is an undercurrent in the African American/Black American experience. But it's also a uniquely American quest. 'Who am I?' and the ability to express that is a question spotted throughout literature.”
Loop 21 asked Womack to break down the terms black Americans have used to describe themselves over time. From Negro to Colored, Black to African American, what do these labels signify and what does their evolution mean?
“Even before slavery came into existence both words were being used. At one point, it was the official word for people who were enslaved. The words are of Spanish origin, I’m guessing that’s because the Spanish were among the larger slave trading nations; that’s how the word arrived in the Americas. These words were already in use when the first slaves were brought over to North American in the 1600s.”
“Before we started categorizing people by race, people were identified by their ethnic groups like the Ashanti or Yoruba. ‘Colored’ is just a manifestation of that. After so many years, people gravitated toward the term.”
Afro-American (late 1800s)
“After emancipation, it became very important, once people were no longer enslaved, to really come up with a term to define themselves. At that point, a lot of scholars were doing research on Africa, trying to teach people about their history. Scholars like Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois were trying to reestablish this connection with Africa and started using the term ‘Afro-America.’ Was it a popular term? Not really, because nobody wanted to be called African at that time. They were brainwashed to think that Africa was a horrible place. They mostly used ‘negro’ to be official. ‘Colored’ was kind of like the usage of ‘white.’”
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“’Black’ came out of the Black Power movement of the 1960s. Stokely Carmichael started saying ‘we are black people,’ and other phrases like ‘black pride’ and ‘black power’ started becoming popular. Up until that point, the worse thing you could call a black person was black. In the 1960s, you started having black study programs and black awareness. You also had the Black Arts Movement. It was very afro-centric, where the average person was walking around saying ‘I’m black and I’m proud.’ But it was also still a little scary for some people. It was considered a radical term. As more people started saying ‘black power,’ the term ‘negro’ faded out. It was considered a phrase of the past. People were reclaiming who they were.
African American (1980s)
“At some point in the 1980s, it might have been when Jesse Jackson ran for president the second time, he started using the term ‘African American’ a lot on television; so much that it took hold and stuck. It was a way of saying, ‘we are not a color. Black is a color, it is not a cultural identity.’ At first, your average person still felt it was uncomfortable, especially people who were of the Black Power generation, because it was their way of claiming a fight against this political structure. The term “black” has as much political connotation as cultural. But African Americans started saying the term because the media started using it a lot. So, the next generation, someone like me I, I started using ‘black’ and ‘African American’ interchangeably.”
Which do you prefer to be called: black or African American?