Why “African American” IS the Most Accurate Term

By Guest Contributor invisiman52, originally published at Max Protect

(An African Methodist Episcopal Church and stop on the Underground Railroad)

On his blog at The New RepublicJohn McWhorter argues that “African American” does not accurately describe the descendants of African slaves who live in the United States today.  He suggests that the term should be reserved for “actual Africans” who emigrate to the United States; but for those whose ancestors were brought to the North American mainland in chains, “black will have to do,” McWhorter says.  There are several reasons why his logic in the post (as well as that in this Bloggingheads with Glenn Loury) is flawed.  If one takes the time to understand the historical, geopolitical, and ethical ramifications of the term “African American,” he might realize that it is the most precise signifier for the people whose ancestors endured the traumatic encounter with European enslavers in the North American colonies and United States.

First off, it bears noting that if someone has a personal aversion to the term “African American” there is no need to try to convince her otherwise.  (Indeed, people do not like the names a parent gives them and change them as a result.)  Yet McWhorter’s argument does not rest on personal predilection, but rather it is an attempt to reason and eventually settle on the most exact designation for black people native-born to the U.S.  As such, the first concern is one of history.  (And McWhorter recognizes this, as his title suggests: “Did ‘African American’ History Really Happen in Atlanta, Cleveland, Philly, and Detroit?  Listening to the Census.”)  That most black Americans have not been to Africa, do not speak an indigenous African language, and/or cannot trace their ancestral line to a particular tribe or region is beside the point.  The “African” in African American is not that grounded; it is does not signify the particularities of Africa.  Instead, the “African” in African America refers to a very distinct historical process of acculturation, trauma, and community building.  As historian Ira Berlin puts in his definitive text on slavery, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America:

When the captives boarded ship in Africa, they did not think of themselves as Africans.  Their allegiance was to a family, clan, community, or perhaps–although rarely–state, but never to the continent itself.  By the time they reached the American shores, that had begun to change; as they disembarked, the process by which many African nations became one had already gained velocity.  The construction of an African identity proceeded on the western, not the eastern, side of the Atlantic, amid the maelstrom of the plantation generation. (104)

It is this historical activity that “African”  connotes.  That these people and their descendants would eventually lose the distinctiveness of their native clans, and instead merge strategies of survival and elements of culture means that only a term as capacious and ambiguous as “African” can forcefully capture them.  Paradoxically, the “African” in African American has everything and nothing to do with the places of Africa.

However, one might argue, as McWhorter does, that “African American” is a better label for a person who emigrated from an African country, the so-called “actual African.”  Today, over 1 million black people in the United States are from Africa; and yet, I argue, the term “African American” is not the most accurate signifier for these subjects.  Why?  Because “African” is too abstracted for them.  That is to say, an immigrant from Nigeria is a Nigerian-American, just as one from Ireland is an Irish-American.  Because the immigrant from Nigeria knows he is from Nigeria, he should be hailed accordingly.  This recognizes two realities of geopolitical modernity: one, the importance of the formation of nation-states; and, two, that most black people born in the United States do not know precisely from where they come.  This is how one distinguishes a descendant of slaves from an African immigrant from, say, Kenya: the former is an African American, the latter is a Kenyan American; whereas the Kenyan knows he from Kenya, the African American is from everywhere and nowhere in Africa at the same time.

Of course, a person from Kenya is also an African, but so too is someone from Cameroon or Lesotho.  What I am after is the most precise and utilitarian of terms.  (The cultural and social politics of locating such specificity accounts for why white people say they are “Italian Americans” or of Anglo Saxon heritage, as opposed to the broader “European Americans.”)  The problem with calling the descendants of slaves simply “black American” is that it doesn’t do enough to separate them from black African immigrants in ways that “African American” can.

Just as McWhorter (and others) disavows the term “African” because he finds little of Africa in his way of being, so too should he dismiss “black” because, as his headshot shows, he is far from the color.  (I think both African American and black serve their respective purposes; but I am trying to point out the lapse of a logic that on the one hand relies on absolute preciseness, while on the other hand, does not.)  Moreover, McWhorter claims that we need to get away from “African American” because it too easily evokes a kind of false pride, couched in Africa, that has little to do with the American experience.  As he puts it, “Among black Americans in 2010, true black pride does not call itself ‘African.'”  Well, tell that those who worship in the African Methodist Episcopal or the African Methodist Episcopal Zion churches.  Tell that to those who trace their educational pedigrees back to the Free African Schools of the antebellum North.

Overall, what bothers me most in the disavowal of the term African American is the orientalist projection that many, including McWhorter, thrust on African people.  McWhorter says at one point: “In truth, a black man from Jacksonville has more in common with a white one from Tucson than he does with a man three years out of Senegal.”  Unfortunately, I cannot grant this truth.  While the black man from Jacksonville and the white one from Tuscon might share a first language, there is no guarantee that their similarities go beyond this one.  Especially after the time of colonialism, Africans share a great deal with their black counterparts native to the United States.  What must be asked is this: What does that man from Senegal look like to McWhorter?  Indeed what do the African people look like to African Americans in general?  If we, African Americans, shutter our own imperialist gaze we might find more in common with Africans than we thought.  We are too quick to say “I’m not African” without knowing what “African” is in any sense of the word.

And, to answer McWhorter’s question, African American history happened all over the United States.

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