Paul R. Lehman, Race: African American or black is not really a choiceFebruary 1, 2010 at 6:09 pm | Posted in Ethnicity in America | 1 Comment
Tags: Paul R. Lehman, Race: African American or black not a choice
The pivotal point in Alex Haley’s award-winning book Roots is one that tells the story of the Africans’ transitions to African Americans as well as underscoring the meaning of the book. The scene is when Kunta has been suspended from a tree and is being beaten by the overseer for his refusal to accept the slave name Toby. Although he is beaten almost to death, Kunta will not relinquish his name. Only after begging and pleading from the grandfatherly character Fiddler, does Kunta accept the slave name Toby. Why does Kunta endure so much pain and anguish in refusing to change his name? He did so because he knew that once his name was changed he would lose his positive identity, culture and history. He knew that his name, culture, and country constituted who he was. They all had a positive value to him and his world. Once his name was taken from him, he became simply what the slave system wanted him to be, a subhuman thing with a name that carried no value except the value placed on it by the slave system. Gone was any positive element of an identity, culture, and country. So, what does this fictional experience have to do with African Americans and blacks?
Like Kunta Kinte, Africans came to America with their own unique positive identity. Their names represented their status as human beings from a particular culture and country. One of the first acts committed against the Africans who were enslaved was to have their names taken from them. In an almost religious sense they were given new names that reflected only the fact that they were now born again, but into slavery. Although each slave was given a personal name, collectively they were referred to as negros, blacks, or slaves (for a complete discussion of how the African became African American see my book The Making of the Negro in Early American Literature). Sometimes they were referred to as African slaves, but the African part was soon removed in favor of the tribal or geographical area from which they were taken initially. The reason for this change was because Africans from different regions or locations had different skills and talents that could be bargained for in the slave market. Since the owners knew this information, they advertised it for more profit.
The terms negro and black were used interchangeably from roughly the 1600s to the 1960’s, when the black cultural revolution focused on changing the term black from a negative to a positive. The changes was effective in that the African Americans did not feel put upon when referred to as black by other Africans Americans as well as by European Americans. The problem of the name change has been somewhat of a sleeping dog over the years. Now, however, the time has come to awaken the dog. The term black did not changed for European Americans since they were never part of the negative stigma associated with being referred to as black or negro. The change affected only the African American. What has failed to occur during this entire experience of American slavery is the questioning of the name change.
When people, non-Americans, come to America, they come with a name that represents their identity. That identity contains a culture and a country. Only after living in America for a period of time do they seek to change identity if it means a positive benefit for them. The same is true for their language and accents; if it means a positive change, then they change. With African Americans the situation is different in that they never had a choice to decide on whether to change or not. They were stuck with negro, colored, and black. None of these terms are appropriate because they lack the element of identifying a cultural or country. Black and negro are the same term, only one is English the other is Latin. Black is a color, not a culture or a country. Because the term white has been used as the opposite of the term black in America and usually followed by the term race, a definite social and historical association is placed along side both words. The framers of the Constitution chose not to make a distinction among slaves since all slaves were defined as negro or black. The association of both terms suggests the society-created values of white superiority and black inferiority. Although both values have been declared bogus, they nonetheless remain part of the language landscape. The only way to remove them is to stop using them. If the African Americans stopped using the term black, then society would be compelled to change their perceptions because to negative associations with the term black would be absent. European Americans would, in time, understand the ineffectiveness of the terms white and Caucasian in discerning a cultural or ancestral identity.
For the African American to experience any semblance of growth and change they must recognize the fact that the term black is like a shackle that holds them in bondage. Like Kunta Kinte, they must come to realize the positive cultural value in the term African American and embrace it. Not all Americans with black complexions have the unique historical experience as does the African Americans. As a minority group, African Americans have made more positive contributions to their country and the world than any country or culture with a non-European majority. So what’s not to embrace about being African American? In addition, if one wishes not to be identified as African American, he or she is free to be whatever he or she wants to be. But black is not equal to African American. To many African Americans parting with the term black would be difficult because of the social and historical significance it holds. However, once they realize that the term is a carry-over from the system of American slavery and that its value is negative to all but them, the change will come. After all, black does not identify a person, cultural or country, just a color. The irony of it all is that almost everyone accepted it as a valid term with out question.