- THE NAME GAME
Black or African American?
According to my Teachers,
I am now an African-American.
They call me out of my name.
BLACK is an open umbrella.
I am a Black and A Black forever.
I am one of The Blacks.
—GWENDOLYN BROOKS, “I AM A BLACK”
On June 5, 2020, in Washington, D.C., city workers painted three bold words down the street leading directly to the White House: BLACK LIVES MATTER. The city had already renamed this section of D.C.’s Sixteenth Street to Black Lives Matter Plaza, and now they had a two-block-long street mural so big you could see it from space. Size matters, but the heart of the mural is the language, and the key word here is this one: black.
We’ll get (way) further into the Black Lives Matter movement, but for now, let’s keep it real: “African American lives matter!” as a motto just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Giant murals aside, what do you call a person of African descent living in America: black, African American, colored, Negro? (Okay, I was just play- ing about the last two.Those terms have been dead.) Does it matter what you call us? I want to start with this question because I get it a lot, and if we’re going to have a good, long conversation, first I want you to know how I identify myself. I also want to start here because definitions are going to be important throughout this book—the words we use have power, especially around race. And none of them, these in- cluded, are simple.
HISTORICALLY AND PRESENTLY, black people have a hard time agreeing on how to describe ourselves as a group. We must never forget that the lion’s share of people of African descent living in this country had ancestors that were seized from their homeland and stripped of the core parts of their identities: kinship ties, links to a tribe, language, and so on. That they suffered a hellish journey.That when they reached the shores of what became America, they became some- thing less than human—legally—and were deprived of the most important things that made them, them.
We must never lose sight of the fact that this torture went on for hundreds of years, until the end of the Civil War, and even beyond it (remember what I said about Juneteenth).*
As part of establishing themselves after the Civil War, emancipated black people began to adopt dif- ferent racial labels. The first widely used term was colored, because it was accepted by both white and black people and deemed inclusive of those who had mixed racial ancestry, too. Colored reigned supreme into the early twentieth century and can still be found in the name of what might be the most important black organization of all time: the NAACP (the Na- tional Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded in 1909).
The rise of progressive black figures like Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois spurred a shift from colored to Negro as the dominant term. Du Bois pitched Negro as philosophically stronger and also as more versatile since it could be used as a noun or an adjective. Negro held on for a few decades, from the early twentieth century until the end of the civil rights movement. One of the chief arguments against Negro eventually gained the upper hand: that it was originally a term imposed by white people onto black people.
After the late 1960s, black came into its own. One of the main arguments for using black was that it cre- ated a parallel with white. (Which, side note, is also an invented term—European immigrants didn’t ar- rive here saying, “White and proud”!) Black birthed phrases like “black and beautiful,” “Black and Proud,” and groups like the Black Muslims and Black Pan- thers, and generally dominated through the 1970s and into the ’80s.
Then, in 1988, black leaders met in Chicago to discuss the “National Black Agenda,” where some of them proposed replacing black with African-American. One of those leaders was activist and former presi- dential candidate Jesse Jackson. (Right, Obama was not the first to run.) Jackson explained his group’s thinking: “Just as we were called colored, but were not that, and then Negro, but not that, to be called black is just as baseless. Every ethnic group in this country has reference to some cultural base. African Ameri- cans have hit that level of maturity.” Those advocating for the use of African-American over black criticized black as a label that was originally assigned by slave owners and also highlighted the links between black and sin, between black and dishonesty, between black and a lack of virtue, between black and a whole bunch of negative connotations. African-American, they argued, instead celebrated a cultural heritage.
Not everyone was on board with the switch— including Gwendolyn Brooks, whose poem “I Am a Black” started this chapter. Brooks, the first black per- son to win a Pulitzer Prize (1950), published a whole collection of poems called Blacks in 1973. Among other things, she liked how inclusive “black” was, an “open umbrella” for anyone with skin like hers. Others opposed to Jackson and his shift to African-American argued that its hyphenation was another way of subju- gating black people: a.k.a. you’re not American Amer- icans, you’re this subset. Still others felt that all the name-changing business was a diversion that drew at- tention away from the real problems. (Ironically, some Black Lives Matter advocates criticized the mayor of D.C. for the huge mural, calling it a distraction from their goals of police reform.)
So that’s where we are, history-wise.There remain camps of those who favor black and those who favor African American (pretty sure Negro and colored won’t be making any comebacks, but one never knows). You may also have heard the term POC or BIPOC— People of Color or Black Indigenous People of Color. Rather than a synonym for black, this is more a synonym for minority, once the go-to for anyone nonwhite. I pre- fer it to minority, for the record, because people of color make up the global majority!
Let’s Get Uncomfortable
I IMAGINE SOME of you are thinking: If black people can’t decide which term to use, then how and why should white people be expected to know which term to use? Point taken. But all that means is that this conversation is worth having.
I’ve had my own journey. Growing up, at home, I felt Nigerian, because that’s what my family was— but out in the world, I felt black, because I knew that’s how the rest of the world saw me. I knew this despite the fact that, as I said in the intro, I wasn’t even sure I knew what being black meant . . . like, was I black enough if I was listening to R&B instead of Lil Wayne or Nas? Whatever I doubted about the specifics, my skin color made me a lifetime member of the club.
As for African American, no one embodies the defi- nition more than I do. Even as I’m now immersed in black American culture, I’m actually a dual citizen of the United States and Nigeria, and I go back to my father’s home village for a few weeks every year (on medical mission work). Still, I don’t personally iden- tify with the term African American. If you’re gonna go there, I mean, get it right—I’m Nigerian American. I’m not from the whole continent.
To the extent I can speak for anyone else: black is the most inclusive choice. Here’s Gwendolyn Brooks again, this time from her poem “Primer for Blacks”:
The word Black
has geographic power,
pulls everybody in:
Blacks wherever they may be.
BLACK COVERS THE descendants of the people who were brought over on slave ships and forced to work on plantations and also includes people like my par- ents, who immigrated to the United States. It covers all the black people in the United States and also joins them with people of African descent in Brazil, the Caribbean, Mexico (the diaspora), and other countries where the transatlantic slave trade brought Africans. It’s a descriptor of what black people all have in common.
There’s no one label that will satisfy all (who knows, maybe there’s some old head who still wants to be called Negro), but there is usually an opportunity to ask someone their preference.Yes, it might be uncom- fortable, but it’s the right thing to do. It’s also a deci- sion that will keep you from making mistakes, from offending someone when that’s not your intent.
Talk It, Walk It
WELL INFORMED. WE’VE all got to be as well informed as we can be. And to that end, I suggest reading writer Tom Smith’s essay “Changing Racial Labels: From ‘Colored’ to ‘Negro’ to ‘Black’ to ‘African American.’” And check out Kee Malesky’s “The Journey from ‘Colored’ to ‘Minorities’ to ‘People of Color,’” published on npr.org.
And when in doubt—again, just ask. Remember in school, when a new teacher would ask if anyone had a particular way of saying their name or even went by another name? Jennifer would say she wanted to be called Jen. Some guy named Fernando said he pre- ferred going by Flip. Jonathan Jr. wanted to be called JJ. And the teacher, if they cared, marked those names in the roll book, and that was that. They didn’t ques- tion why the students had those preferences, they just respected them.The question of whether to use black or African American is ultimately a preference, one that helps a person present their identity to the world. Each person you meet might not have a preference, but maybe they do. Trust me, language matters.