Tiffany B. Brown

On being ‘Black’ versus being ‘African-American’

African? American? Both? Or neither? “Black” seems to be an accepted hybrid term that falls short of claiming either entity yet still denotes exceptionalism in this society.

Nonetheless, this ambiguity isn’t entirely neutral, as black people generally seem prone to distance themselves more from Africa, than America — either consciously or sub-consciously.

So says Malik Washington in his NPR piece Embracing The African In African-American.

Yes, but not for the reasons he thinks.

For me, the choice to identify as Black rather than as African-American isn’t a rejection of my African descent. It’s an embrace of the fact that my condition — how I perceive the world, how I relate to the world, how I am perceived by actual Africans, as well as my familial history, and racial identity — is distinctly American.

The story of how I got here is wrapped up in the history of the “New World,” and the United States. Some of my ancestors were (we think) from France, possibly England, Ireland or Scotland. Some were Cherokee. Some were undoubtedly west African. My family roots extend at least five generations into the soil of North and South Carolina, perhaps as far back as the 1700s. That’s an American condition — in both the “Western Hemisphere” sense and the “United States” sense. There isn’t much African about it.

As Ana Paula da Silva writes in, Black tourism in Brazil, a post I return to regularly when I think about black American racial identity:

Having pestered many Americans about the topic, it seems to me that heritage can best be described as a myth-making attempt to fix claims to certain elements of history as personal or collective property. It thus disturbs me when black Americans come to Bahia in search of their heritage. What they seem to be saying is that Bahia — and by extension, Brazil — makes no useful sense on its own terms and holds little interest for them except as it fits into their personal mythologies of identity.

Swap “Brazil” for “Africa” and you begin to understand my issues with identifying as an “African-American” or as an “African.”

“African-American” is too nebulous to be meaningful. “African” is just inaccurate. I am not — and most black Americans are not — African. Africans aren’t “African.” They’re Nigerian or Ghanaian or Moroccan or Zimbabwean. They’re Yoruba, Hausa, Akan, Ashanti, Berber, Tuareg, or Shona. Africans don’t become “African” (or “black,” for that matter) until they move to Europe or the United States or Canada — places where the brown skin common to peoples of the continent are visibly different and “Othered.”

Not only does “African-American” feel to me like an acquiescence to the idea that black people aren’t wholly American, but, like “African,” it turns a complex continent with over 50 and roughly 2000 ethno-linguistic groups into an imagined monolith. It ignores African cultures and history for the sake of making black Americans feel good. And it also erases a rich black American history of resistance and perseverance.

Still, I get the need to claim an ethnic origin. I, like many post-Civil Rights Era black Americans, had my identity crisis phase. At one time, I embraced “African-American” in part, because “black,” on its surface, felt empty.

“Black,” after all, is an arbitrary racial designation. It’s a color. It lacks any sort of ethnic specificity.

“Black” does not, however, lack a history.

I identify as “black” now because I understand that race is a construct rooted in history and bound by circumstance. In Brazil, for example, I might be moreno or mulato because of my mixed ancestry and light skin color. In the United States, I am legally and culturally black. My blackness is defined partly by my African ancestry, but mostly by U. S. history, culture, and law.

So while “African-American” acknowledges my geographic origins, “black,” particularly when used with “American,” recognizes that my cultural worldview is shaped by my experiences in the United States. It says not only do I belong here, but that I am of this country.

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