‘Negro’ to ‘African-American’: What are we?

Since the arrival of Africans in what would become the United States, the issue of naming has been central to black identity. The ability to name oneself, as an individual and as a group, is an act of self-determination. Throughout our history, the names chosen by black people to identify themselves also represent efforts to put forth an identity and a sense of agency that is much larger than the narrow confines assigned to them by an historically white supremacist society.

The New World’s first black inhabitants were “Negros” or “Africans” – named so by their European captors. It is highly unlikely that the captives understood themselves to be African, for their primary sense of identity may have been language, kinship, family, clan and ethnic group. They may have even understood themselves to have come from a particular region or set of religious practices. To the extent that they began to understand themselves as “African”, it was as something defined as other than the whites: Primarily a difference of skin color but also belief, behavior and sensibility.

Eventually they would accept the designation African. Those who were free would even name their earliest institutions “African”: African Methodist Episcopalian, African Methodist, First African Baptist, The African Free School. Significantly, although they would be called “Negro” as well, more often than not, they chose the designation “African”. However, as efforts to encourage colonization began to grow in the 19th Century, many blacks began to insist upon their identity as Americans and their investment in and contribution to the burgeoning nation.

Throughout the 18th and 19th century, enslaved Africans and their descendants would variously refer to themselves as “Black”, “Negro”, “Colored” and “Afro-American”. With the black consciousness movement of the 1960s, younger black people adopted the term “Black”, which had previously been used in a derogatory manner. “Black” was seen as all embracing and encompassing of black-skinned people around the world: a designation that signaled strength, beauty and number. It also was unrestricted by any association with nation, state, or even the Western hemisphere.

Significantly, none of the earlier terms had been used to signify skin color alone, as those persons calling themselves “African”, “Afro-American”, “Negro”, “Colored” and “Black” came in every imaginable shade. Fundamentally, these were political, cultural and historical designations. (During the 1980s young British activists began to use the term “Black” to identify both persons of African descent as well as those whose ancestors hailed from India.) When Rev. Jesse Jackson popularized the term African-American in a 1988 speech, it became a way of acknowledging both a national identity as well as a relationship to all persons of African descent. It is not surprising that the term came into popular use during Jackson’s 1988 Presidential campaign.

In the last two decades, the issue of black identity in the United States continues to be a work in process. This time the challenge isn’t from an outside racist force but from intra-racial differences made more apparent with the large-scale immigration of blacks from the continent of Africa and the Caribbean. While such immigrants have always come to the United States, the pressures of the black freedom struggle during the 1960s led to a the Immigration Act of 1965, which revised many of the race-based restrictions of earlier legislation.

Consequently, the number of blacks with more direct roots in Sub-Saharan Africa has tripled in the last twenty years, while the number of immigrants from the Caribbean has increased by almost 60%. These demographic shifts challenge the boundaries of the term African American. The phrase itself is certainly large enough to encompass all of these groups, but it does not recognize the historical specificity of each of their experiences and their historical relationship to the nation state. However, in this era of increased globalization, the phrase itself may be too narrow. I agree with the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, who always preferred the term “Black” because it included people worldwide – from Africa to Asia, Europe, the South Pacific and the Americas.