Paul R. Lehman, African American and American

March 15, 2010 at 11:05 pm | Posted in Ethnicity in America | 8 Comments

Several weeks ago while enjoying a cup of coffee with a recent acquaintance, I was surprised when he asked me a question. He asked me why I referred to myself as African American instead of simply American, like he referred to himself. He went on to say that he did not preference his European American heritage such as German, Irish, or French, so why should I. His asking of that question told me a considerable amount about his lacking information about himself and the African American experience in society. I did not want to embarrass him nor did I wanto ignore his question. So, I decided to be as brief  and succinct as possible in addressing his question.

             My response to my acquaintance went somewhat as follows. When you were born inAmerica, you were born into a privileged group because your parents were European Americans. Without rehearsing American History in responding to the question, let us settle on two facts—the founding fathers created a society of two groups. One group they called white, the other was called Negro, black, or colored. To the white group was given the privilege of being viewed as normal; that is, a normal human being as far as physical, intellectual, and religious qualities were concerned. The qualities were established by the European American wealthy or ruling class in America. The other group was forced to view themselves in a totally negative context. Additionally, their homeland of Africa was also pictured in a negative, unwholesome, and primitive context, so that even African Americans did not want to be associated with it. Being identified with the white group posed no problems for members of that group because society catered to them as models of what human being should be. Placing emphasis on a European ancestry would distract from simply being identified as white.

                For the African American, because of his skin color and ancestry, he would constantly be viewed as a second-classed citizen. He would never fully enjoy the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness because society and its laws prevented him from doing so. He was so restricted in society he could not identify himself. Society made no provisions from him to do so. Only after the Civil War did America start to recognize the injustice that it had heaped upon its African American citizens. Prior to and after this time European Americans were made to believe that American society was created for only them; and the other non-European Americans were allowed to live here out of society’s compassion for them. Since the European Americans controlled the society, they felt quite comfortable in referring to themselves as Americans. All others were given special names.

                So, in a brief response, my acquaintance was informed that my preference to refer to myself as African American comes as a result of a pursuit and knowledge of American History, the efforts of generations of African Americans seeking  justice, and the historical Civil Rights Acts enacted that finally resulted in my having the opportunity to identify myself without the influence of the negative stigma of the American slave system.

He accepted that response with some hesitation. Unfortunately, the opportunity to inform my acquaintance of the various acts of governmental actions in behalf  of all non-European Americans was not convenient. Had it been, he would have been reminded of the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown V. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas; or the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, 1964, 1965, and 1968. All of these actions were taken to try and correct the injustices perpetrated on or against African Americans in for them to gain equal status with the European Americans.

                Finally, the recommendation was made to my acquaintance to please read, for a more detailed discussion of this topic, my books, America’s Race Problems: A Practical Guide to Understanding Race in America; and, The making of the Negro in Early American Literature.




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  1. Thank you for this commentary; I appreciate your response.

    • Yolanda,

      Thank you for your comments. I appreciate your support of the blog. If you have any suggestions for future topics within the theme of America’s race problem, I will certainly welcome them.

  2. Excellent response. Your friend also need not be concerned about his right to vote expiring if that provision of the Civil Rights Act is not continually renewed every quarter century. Even though his voting rights and that of all “Americans” are supposed to be protected under the Fifteenth Amendment, the Civil Rights Act was required to enforce compliance. He nor his kids need worry about 2031, when it’s set to expire again…it simply doesn’t apply to them. Whenever the time comes that it doesn’t apply to African Americans, we can drop the African.

    • Hi Jim,

      Thanks for your support and your timely comments. I am certain you will have others who also agree with your comments regarding the Civil Rights Acts.

  3. Like you, many of my European American friends and associates have asked me the same question. Your response was indeed more scholarly and less emotional than my past responses have been. Typically, I would express the rational of the value of respect of ethnic specificity. “I am not black, I am an African American. Any other reference labeling my ethnicity sorely offends me. We are the ethnic bastards of America’s founding fathers. As America’s outside children, we still live under the power of the provisionality of the Civil Rights Acts. We are not yet legitimate heirs of the full inheritance of the American dream. Regretfully, we have embraced the names given to us. Please identify me as an African American. The use of any other affixed identification is a reflection of your ignorance.”
    This movement embraces my authenticity and guaranteed seat at the head table. We must put an end to leasing our rights and for the sake of future generations of African Americans OWN our rights. Dr. Paul, thank you for sharing your thought-provoking experience.

  4. I would enjoy your brief review of the movie “Spinning Into Butter” starring Sarah Jessica Parker as it relates to your latest publication. Thank You.

    • Thank you for your comments. Anytime we can enlighten someone it helps everyone concerned. Your comments make a difference.

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