Paul R. Lehman, Race: African American or black is not really a choice

February 1, 2010 at 6:09 pm | Posted in Ethnicity in America | 1 Comment
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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.


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  1. I think your post is right on so many counts; I have always favored the term ‘African American’ because it is generally the most correct and recognized an ethnic heritage. I have been against the term ‘black’ because of the history behind it (and the term ‘negro’ to some extent), having originated by European Americans and then co-opted for “shock” value by African Americans in the 1960s. ‘Negro’ and ‘Colored’ are also terms lacking any real accuracy because they only describe skin characteristics and not origin or heritage. (And of course there is the derivation of the word ‘negroid’, which I particularly take objection to because I do not believe that simple physical characteristics constitute “race” in any meaningful way other than stereotypes.)

    As you stated in your blog, the naming yourself and defining your identity gives you a degree of control and credibility in a society. If it defines your ethnic origin, it also tends to give you a sense of pride. (Note: I have never heard a ‘American’ compound word [e.g., African American, Italian-American, German American, Asian American, etc] used derogatively in normal conversation. I can’t say the same for the variety of other descriptive words used to describe “racial” and ethnic heritage.)

    Unfortunately, it seems like the times are changing (somewhat controversially) with the census inclusion of term Negro as a race on the same line as Black and African American as identifiers. Personally, I would advocate replacing the term ‘race’ with ‘ethnic group’ in all situations because it is more accurate. If you allow the additon of ‘negro’, why not go all out and add the ‘octoroon’, ‘quadroon’, and ‘mulatto’ designations as well?

    Of course, I also find it interesting that there hasn’t been anyone claiming responsibility for adding that designation to the form other than the generic blurb that some 3 percent of African Americans prefer the term (with no quotes from ANY African Americans saying they prefer ‘negro’ over the modern alternatives). I seriously doubt that the addition was not made in a vacuum or by some faceless bureaucrat or committee after careful thought and deliberation; it seems too much like a cheap, political trick designed to prolong racial divisions in this country.

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