Paul R. Lehman, African American History, not black history

July 10, 2011 at 6:46 pm | Posted in American Racism, Ethnicity in America, Race in America | 2 Comments
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When African Americans had the opportunity to change their
identity from Negro, black, and colored to African American during the cultural
revolution of the 60s and 70s, they elected not to do so. Instead, they chose
to change the word black from a negative to a positive, at least in the African
American community. While the change brought about a new positive
self-awareness in many African Americans, the positive self-awareness was
limited to African Americans. That is, European Americans who referred to
African Americans as blacks before the Cultural Revolution, and meant it in a
derogatory way, can still do it. The reaction of the African American, however,
has changed from an active one to a passive one. Unfortunately, the missed
opportunity to change the identity to African American has created deeper
problems that if left unattended will continue long into the future. African
Americans must divorce themselves from the use of the word black as a form of
identity or a substitute for African American.

The obvious question to follow is– Why? The obvious answer
is that the word is simply a color that does not identify a people, culture,
country, or an ethnicity. What is does do is provide support for a false belief
that African Americans are of a different biological race than European
Americans. This difference serves as the basis of prejudice, bigoted, and
biased attitudes by some people against African Americans. Maybe an example
will suffice to make this point more clearly.

A former colleague mentioned recently that his department
had hired a new professor to teach the black history classes. What the
statement suggested to me was that somehow black history is something totally
separate and different from traditional American history. Did he mean African
American history or black history? What exactly is black history? What does it
include—the history of all people with black skins or African Americans who use
the word black as a form of identity? If he meant the latter, he should have
said so to eliminate any confusion. However, if African Americans are okay with
being identified with a color only, they must realize that the color is all
they can pass along to future generations. History, culture, and ancestry are
all important to an identity, but if the identity does not convey those things,
it is use less.

Another of the problems caused by using the word black
instead of African American is it lacks specificity. No one, to my knowledge,
takes a class in white history because such a class does not exist. American
History is the term used for the history that records the European American
experience in America. References to important events and individuals relating
to slavery are sometimes included in that history. However, the everyday
experiences and accomplishments of African Americans have been omitted from
traditional American History. If that deficiency of information is to be
corrected, it cannot be done in a class called black history because all the
influences by the European Americans that created, ordered, manipulated, and
controlled the African Americans would be omitted. A class in American History
with emphasis on the African American experience or simply African American History
would be more to the point.

The words black and white have the coordinating words bad
and good, respectively, that accompanies their identity in American society.
What that black identity means in the academic world is that any class with the
word black in it is not valued as much as one that speaks to the subject
without it. The point here is that the word black serves as a marker for not
being on a par with the official subject. The fact of the matter is that
European Americans do not care what African Americans call themselves or
classes about them. The word black as a marker, however, serves to separate and
devalue whatever it is associated with relative to African American identity.
In addition, the word black always points backwards toward slavery,
segregation, discrimination, prejudice, and bigotry because that was where the
word came into the popular parlance. The word black is like a hand that holds
the African American in the past. The term African American, on the other hand,
speaks to the present and future because it does not carry any of the negative
baggage of the African American past with it.

When we take the time to examine the African American
experience in America, we discover that it is inexorably tied to the American
experience. For any class that focuses on the American experience to do so without
including African Americans would do a disservice to the subject and the
students as well. For a class to try and focus only on the so-called black
experience would also do a disservice to the subject and the students because
it would leave out too many influences from American society. Too many
Americans believe the reference to a black identity is restricted to America
and serves as a substitute for African American. That is a false assumption
because many people throughout the world are referred to as blacks, primarily
because of their complexions, but also because of their ethnicity. That
reference, however, is often considered as derogatory because those people have
legitimate cultural, ancestral, and geographical identities. No non-American
comes to America as simply a black or a white because those are merely colors.

A person’s and a people’s identity is not only a source of
pride and value, but also a source of information about the past and present. People
with just one name cannot pass along to their progeny anything but their one
name, thereby depriving their progeny of any chance for sharing the identity.
The children of Pink, for example, must create their own identity if they are
to be unique and individuals. Otherwise, they would simply be known as the
children of Pink. Nothing can be passed along to others from a color other than
what the color represents. The color black or the black identity falls into
this same category.

The word black has outlived its usefulness; time
has come to move into the present and head towards the future sharing the same
values accorded all other people with positive self-identities. The mistakes of
the past the wise seek to amend, the fools accept and fail to contend. Progress
always comes with an interruption



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  1. Great analysis Dr. Lehman! Unfortunately, You are asking an entire population of human being to go through a cultural, social,

  2. Excellent argument and examples. It is the heart of the racial construct; white good, black bad. For things to change (and they have not) we have to change.

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