In 1988, Rev Jesse Jackson convinced America’s black population to adopt the term “African-American”. It has stuck for 24 years. But in recent months, a significant number of African-Americans have been clamouring to drop the “African” and go back to just “black”. As the African Union brings the African Diaspora to a summit in South Africa on 25 May, our correspondent Leslie Goffe looks at the arguments for and against dropping the “African” from African-American.
One question certain to be asked at the African Union’s first-ever Global African Diaspora Summit in Midrand, in South Africa, on 25 May is: “Do Africans in the Diaspora really want closer ties with Africa?” The answer is yes. Two important recent meetings – one in Senegal and the other in the United States – show this.
This past December, 200 black mayors from Europe, the USA, Africa, and the Caribbean met in Dakar for the World Summit of Mayors Leadership Conference. Organised jointly by the National Conference of Black Mayors in the United States and by the National Association of Senegalese Mayors, the conference saw the 43 African-American mayors in attendance promising to do all they could to encourage economic development in Africa.
They said they would press US companies to invest in Africa and help boost tourism by encouraging Americans to travel to the continent on vacation. In another encouraging sign of cooperation between Africa and the African Diaspora, parliamentarians, community leaders, and officials of the African Union’s Pan-African Parliament met at the UN in New York in February to prepare for the historic Global African Diaspora Summit in South Africa on 25 May.
“These pockets of African people scattered around the world,” said Cheick Sidi Diarra, the UN’s special adviser on Africa, “can now play a significant role in Africa’s growth, development and empowerment.”
This new mood of cooperation between Africa and the African Diaspora is not by accident or by happenstance. All of this is because the AU decided in 2003 to recognise the African Diaspora as the sixth region of the AU. This had never happened before and was another encouraging sign of cooperation and growing ties between Africa and the African Diaspora.
But even as Africans and African-Americans are arriving this month in South Africa to find ways of forging closer ties with one another, back in the United States a small but significant number of African-Americans are doing their best to see to it that things fall apart.
Far from coming closer together, these naysayers would like to keep Africa at arm’s length and cast off all things African – including the name “African-American”, a name black Americans adopted 24 years ago at the urging of Rev Jesse Jackson.
“Black does not describe our situation,” Jackson said in a 1988 speech encouraging Black Americans to drop ‘black’ and replace it with ‘African’. “We are of African-American heritage,” Jackson forcefully argued.
Though the term was adopted by many, many others continue to resist and reject it. Among them is Gibre George, a 38-year-old businessman in Miami, Florida. “I am not African-American!” insists George, who set up a Facebook site called Don’t Call Me African-American.
The site, which has had thousands of visitors, has made George a kind of folk hero to black Americans who want nothing to with Africa, a place they see as riven with disease and death and filled with dark memories of their slave past.
So, if George, and others, do not want to be called “African-American”, what do they want to be called? George says he would like simply to be called “American”. He would accept “black” or perhaps “person of colour”. But the term “African-American,” George protests, “just doesn’t settle right in my stomach.”
Predictably, a heated and sometimes ugly debate has sprung up on the internet between those happy to be called “African-American” and those unhappy with the term. “If I went to Africa and said I was an African or an African-American they would look at me like I was crazy,” said one poster on YouTube. “They would probably behead me and put my scalp on the stake.”
Stupid and hateful opinions like this were quickly shot down by another poster on YouTube, this one a supporter of the term “African-American”:
“We are the only group of people who will sit down and argue for an hour-and-a-half about how we are not African,” said the YouTube poster, angry at those who try to distance themselves from Africa. “You came from your ancestors and your ancestors came from Africa. Wake up!”
But it is not just kooks and cranks on the internet who object to the use of “African-American”. Herman Cain, the former Republican presidential candidate, objects to the term, too.
Asked by CNN host Piers Morgan why he objected to being called “African-American”, Cain said his “heritage” had not been shaped by Africa but by America. “We went through the civil rights movement. So I prefer the term black American rather than African-American. That’s going back too far,” Cain said.
It has been almost 25 years since black Americans, thanks to Jesse Jackson’s efforts, stopped calling themselves “black” and began calling themselves “African-American”, exchanging a racial label for an ethnic one that points clearly to their origins in Africa.
“To be called black is baseless,” Jackson said in a December 1988 speech to a group of black leaders who had gathered in Chicago to discuss what they called a “new national black agenda”.
Central to this “new national black agenda” was the new name “African-American”, which Jackson said had “cultural integrity” and would put black people in America in their “proper historical context”.
“Every ethnic group in this country has a reference to some land base, some historical cultural base,” Jackson pointed out. “There are Armenian-Americans and Jewish-Americans and Arab-Americans and Italian-Americans.”
These hyphenated Americans, Jackson said, had a “degree of accepted and reasonable pride”, and had succeeded in connecting “their heritage to their mother country” and also to “where they are now” in America. To Jackson, African-Americans had in 1988 “hit that level of cultural maturity”.
If anyone could convince black Americans to change their name, Jesse Jackson could. After all, he became an important political powerbroker in 1988 after seeking to become the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate. And though he did not win the nomination, he ran a very good race and won more than 7 million votes. This led The New York Times to describe 1988 as “The Year of Jackson”.
By changing from “black” to “African”, Jackson hoped to alter the way black people thought of themselves and Africa, and perhaps ignite, too, a new mass movement, like Civil Rights in the 1950s and 60s.
At the 1989 African-American Summit in New Orleans, it looked as though something new was happening. America’s black leadership had in the past concerned itself mostly with domestic policy. But at the New Orleans Summit, it was clear there was a new-found confidence and daring among African-American leaders. There were calls for resolutions on reparations for slavery, against apartheid, calls for fair trade, and a square deal for Africa.
It was the activist Ramona Edelin, president of the National Urban Coalition, who persuaded Jesse Jackson to press for the African-American name change. “Calling ourselves African-American is the first step in the cultural offensive,” said Edelin. “Change here can change the world.”
But the change to “African-American” from “black” was not immediate. It was slow and protracted. A 1991 survey by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington found that three years after Jackson called for a change of name, only 15% used the term “African-American”, while 72% continued to call themselves “black”.
But a little over 10 years later, in 2003, things had changed dramatically. A poll found that almost half of “blacks” preferred the term “African-American”. Thirty-five per cent liked “black” and 17% liked both terms.
But though “African-American” has become, in its almost 25 years in use, the accepted way to describe black people in America, John McWhorter, 47, a conservative commentator and author of the book, Authentically Black, still prefers to be called black.
“To term ourselves as part African,” says McWhorter, “reinforces a sad implication: that our history is basically slave ships, plantations, lynching …and that we need to look back to Mother Africa to feel good about ourselves.”
But activist Ramona Edelin thinks looking back to Mother Africa to feel good about themselves is exactly what African-Americans should do when they find themselves embattled in America.
As for dropping “African-American”, as some want to do, Edelin thinks this would be a bad idea. But she does say that if a better term was found, she would support its use. “The young people I talk to are not against it,” Edelin says. “They are happy with it.” If there should be a change, Edelin says, “it will have to be something more Pan-African”.
And while Edelin, 67, is willing to accept change, Motown Records singing star Smokey Robinson is not. Smokey, 72, grew up in the 1960s during a time when, he says, “black” was beautiful and when people were black and proud.
He outlined his support for “black” and his opposition to “African-American” in an angry poem broadcast on US television a few years ago. In it, Smokey asked: “How come I didn’t get a chance to vote on who I would like to be? Who gave you” – pointing to Jesse Jackson – “the right to make that decision for me?”
Smokey says he is not an African-American nor is he particularly interested in establishing closer ties with Africa. In his poem, he warned black Americans to be weary of yearning for Africa.
“If you go to Africa in search of your race, you’ll find out quick that you are not an African-American. You’re just a black American taking up space,” he claimed.
Robinson says the name “African-American” rightly belongs to, and should only be used by, immigrants who have come to the United States over the last 20 and 30 years “from places like Kenya, Ethiopia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Zaire.”
Though Chika Onyeani, the Nigerian born, a US-based editor, understands what Smokey Robinson is suggesting, he is not comfortable, either, being called an “African-American”.
This is because, Onyeani says, he was born and bred in Africa and hopes one day to return there, though he has lived in the United States for more than 30 years.
Today, foreign-born blacks from the Caribbean and from Africa, like Onyeani, make up almost 30% of the black population of New York City. But no matter how long they live in the US, those born in Africa will never accept being called “African-American. They say they are Continental Africans,” says Onyeani, a term he claims he coined.
“I am not an African-American,” Onyeani says, a little dismissively. “Maybe my kids are happy to be called African-American; but not me.”
But despite all the controversy, Africa and Africans in the Diaspora have never been closer, says Onyeani, who is the chair of an African Union Diaspora Task Group in the US and plans to be in South Africa for the 25 May Global African Diaspora Summit.
“Sure, some still want to distance themselves from Africa and some in Africa will want to distance themselves from the Diaspora,” says Onyeani. “But most know we are moving together.”