Sharon's Muse.... Let's chat over coffee while I ponder some things
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Sunday, September 04, 2011
From the time the term African-American was coined decades ago - derived from its predecessor Afro-American - controversy has surrounded its use by those within - and without - the U.S. diaspora. The question that often arises is why do "blacks" have to self-designate, why do we set ourselves apart from other Americans? I consider this a specious question. I suspect that often the underlying concern of the questioner is that African-Americans have the power and determination at all to self-designate and that we refuse to allow others to define or label us, especially those who would prefer we go back to the labels "Negro" and "colored". Although other groups have been asked the question why they designate as say an Italian-American or a Polish-American and so on, those queries do not seem to carry the same "interest" as the question surrounding the hyphenation of African and American.
Supposedly everyone knows the tragic history of how early Africans were brought to these shores against their God-given will, so it doesn't need to be rehashed here in detail. Suffice it to say that many of the original slaves who were torn from their continent, from their respective countries, were beaten, tortured and indoctrinated in an attempt to force them to deny their names, to forget their cultures, to cede their power to self-designate as ethnic groups of people. The loss was far-reaching and seemingly permanent (at least, at that time) as blacks from various countries, countries sometimes at war with one another, melded together not as global citizens but as American slaves in a chattel system that was often more degrading and dehumanizing than the war-originated enforced servitude back in their countries.
Despite the evil they were subjected to, many of those original slaves managed to subvert the American pogrom to destroy their identities, to destroy their very souls. Although slave names were forced on them, although they were treated as animals, inwardly the stronger of the displaced Africans held on to the names of their births, to the memories of their people and their cultures. As they melded together as chattel slaves, they also came together as a "people", a new people with a melded ethnicity that gleaned from the various original cultures and eventually merged into a newer, resilient culture all their own.
By the time slavery was proclaimed "over", ties to the African continent were obstensibly disrupted for many of the newly emancipated blacks. They did not know from whence their ancestors hailed, could not determine their country of origin. This fact set them apart from those immigrants newly arrived who held to to their Irish, British, German, Swedish, Polish and Spanish ties and cultures, cultures comprised of certain foods, music and dress.
However, Africans of the American diaspora had by this time "originated" their own music, adopted their own foods, created their own traditions that not only brought them a sense of self worth, but also protected their physical and psychic selves in a country that still sought to deny them their humanity, and at times deny them their very lives.
In times past, the disapora was not even allowed to label themselves. Any referential designation came from others. During earlier times, the now-passe terms Negro and colored were the more courteous of these designations. However, there were more less humane labels that have survived into this millenium. The derivation nigger was so often used that at times it was stated matter-of-factly, without any underlying venom. But the user always had the intent to put the former slaves in their "place."
As the descendents of slaves entered the 20th century, they fought for their own space, their own lives, their own designation. The term black was offensive to many, who preferred the more "courteous" Negro. At that time black held many negative connotations for those still suffering from the surviving vestiges of past degradations. However, as decades passed, those who wished to distance themselves from that humiliating past also wished to shed those designations forced upon them. A new resistance arose during the 40s and 50s which eventually culminated in the militancy of the 60s and 70s. By this time, the term Afro-American had been introduced into the racial zeitgeist and was the designation of preference by those such as Malcolm X who refused his "slave" name and believed that the Africans of the American diaspora should self-designate.
Years later Afro-American evolved into the current designation African-American. Although many of the diaspora initially resisted, some even preferring the the once-rejected black designation, African-American eventually became the accepted designation by those within and without the diaspora. The term currently is often used interchangeably with black and I believe this has led to some confusion regarding the difference in ethnic references and racial references.
Remember, those of us of the diaspora have lost our original ethnic references. Unlike other ethnicities in America who are still able to trace ties back to a specific country(s), we Africans of the American diaspora can only trace our ties back to a continent as the ties to the countries of our ancestors' origin were effectively severed during the earlier pogrom perpetrated against them. Outside of investing monies in tracing our African ancestry, such as Alex Haley was able to do, many of us will never know from which country our ancestors were violently uprooted. Those of us descended from the original diaspora have created our own roots within this country, roots originating from our specific history and circumstances. As for our designation, I think of African American as our ethnicity, while black is our "race."
To understand how the concepts of race and ethnicity differ, you have to first understand that race is an illusory categorization originated in the States with the purpose to divide those with ties to European countries from those hailing from non-European countries.
Some who question our designation cynically put forth disingenous queries trying to indict the term. They particularly like to point out that as some whites were born in Africa they can also be termed African-American. I say these questioners are disingenous because if they actually worked out the logic of their questions they would know that the designation could only refer to those of the original American diaspora. Those who currently immigrate from Africa need not claim the continent as they can claim the countries within the continent from which they originate. This fact applies to African immigrants of any color. Many Africans who settle here do not refer to themselves as African-Americans as well they shouldn't. Because they are not African-Americans; they are Nigerians, Ghanians, South Africans, Liberians, and any other African ethnicity. If they choose to hyphenate when they become American citizens, that is their choice. To reiterate, African-American is specifically an evolved ethnicity for those of us who cannot trace our countries of origin and must refer to the continent instead.
Often those who question the African-American designation deride the term as racially divisive. It is not. It simply refers to the ethnicity of those of the American diaspora. It is no more divisive than say, Italian-American, Polish-American or Swedish-American. After all, we are allowed our ethnic designation as is any other group.
In my early tenure on the Web, I once posted an ad requesting an African-American artist on an art message board. I was duly chastised as being "racist" for my request. That is because those indicting me were confusing race with ethnicity. Ethnicity points to those from a culture with intrinsic knowledge of that culture. I would not have been unduly angry had I been an artist who espied an ad for an Italian-American artist. Additionally, I understand why those casting movies and shows may request certain ethnicities for particular roles. If I were an actor, I would not show up for a "cattle call" requiring Polish-Americans and then feel slighted if I did and was rejected, especially if the crux of the role relies on specific cultural knowledge and experience.
Lastly, many who are descendants of the diaspora eschew the term because they want to be seen as Americans only. This is the case with people of other ethnicities as well. They want to consider America the ultimate melting pot. Well, I don't see America as a melting pot, but more as a smorgasbord of various cultures, all of which add to the "American" flavor. In no other country is there the level of diversity that one finds in this country. Every immigrant brings with him and her a lineage from cultures dating back thousands of years. This lineage is to be celebrated not obscured.
And although African-American culture is relatively "new" and is one derived from the remnants of lineages severely disrupted, it is equally laudable in the flavor it has added to that American smorgasbord. From the foods that originate from the mother continent (yams, watermelon, okra, cassava, peanuts, tania, rice, etc.), to the incorporation of African beats that have informed various genres of American music, to the stylings of African-American culture that increases the "flava", we of the disapora have much of which to be proud. Most of all, we should be proud of the resilience that has allowed most of us to survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortunes to which we have been subject. Yes, we have our setbacks and crises that may bring racial "shame" to some of us; however, we should realize that we are only human and are not a cut above and more importantly not a cut below any other peoples, who, if they had traveled the same course of history, might not have survived or thrived as readily.
So I readily accept that I'm an African-American woman, a person of an ethnic culture which is both rich and dynamic, a culture which is ever changing and morphing hopefully to something even better.
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