Why? Well first, because there is so much strength, power and resilience wrapped into one word that has forever been used to describe all things bad. And second, because society pretty much hates the word. And I’m a rebel, so therefore, I’m lovin’ it.
“Black”….A whole, entire definition to be Damned
If you look it up, the whole word by itself already starts off as a deficit. According to Webster’s Dictionary, “black” just sucks all the way around. It’s just a no-good, very bad word used to describe any and everything problematic. It’s associated with ugliness, darkness, and death. When I looked up the word, the first few definitions were typical and relatively safe; describing a color, a noun for the black race, referencing a dark piece of clothing, etc.
But definitions 4-12 put me in a whole mood and I said to myself, “here we go…”
Dirty. Soiled. Wicked. Bad deed. Condemnation. Sad. Gloomy. Despair. Angry. Hostile. Resentment. Discontent. Devil. Grim. Distorted. Grotesque. Disaster. Discredited.
Oh, and we sure do love to attach “black” onto everything else we hate:
Does “African-American” feel and sound better?
Maybe it’s because the term is (partially?) void of the negative qualities associated with the word “black.” Or perhaps, it’s because the term beautifully intersects our rich, African origins with our parallel American identities:
“African.” Laced in proud origin and motherland greatness, it describes my unknown-known place of origin. To be so proud of an origin unseen is mighty powerful.
“American.” Also my home. A place where my ancestors (involuntarily) assimilated. A culture we’ve adopted while holding onto many of our native traditions.
Where does the term African-American even come from?
Although not widely used for almost two centuries, the Oxford English Dictionary traces the term “African American” back to 1835. However, we also see evidence of it being printed in a Philadelphia sermon in 1782.In the late 1980s, Jesse Jackson made the term popular and official when he announced at a news conference that black people preferred to be called African-American. The announcement was met with some criticism due to the fact that not all blacks identified with Africa and others disapproved of a few, designated black leaders always speaking on their behalf. However, the term was generally accepted and quickly began to make its way into grade-school textbooks and printed media. Many black people celebrated the updated racial category and believed it was a more fitting and accurate alternative to all the terms that preceded it.
But this ain’t the 80s anymore and we are in new times. The current state of our nation, race relations, and personal growth has me reassessing how I identify with my roots.
African-American vs Black? I asked around…
I was curious as to where others stand on identification, so I recently did a Facebook poll and asked if my friends preferred to be called “Black” or “African-American.” I had no idea the question was apparently so complicated….the responses were as different as all of our hundreds of black and brown skin tones and came with a host of caveats, disclaimers and comprehensive explanations.
The conclusion was that although most people seemed to prefer the term “black,” it wasn’t a landslide victory by any measure. To my surprise, I even received a few responses of people saying “I don’t want to be called anything all.” Which lead to even more questions on my part… but I digress. Anyway, this much is certainly clear: we are not monolithic!
Being robbed of knowing our origin of identity left us in a state where we have no one truth or root, and we are able choose how we identify based on a plethora of historical and personal reasons. Perhaps the diverse cacophony of identities is perplexing and frustrating, as we’ve never had an absolute consensus on what we call ourselves as a group. But the array of variations is also beautiful because we aren’t forced into one box or another. We have the freedom to embrace the identity and terms that feel most comfortable to each of us.
I don’t need political correctness
Now back to why I prefer to be called black. It seems as though “African-American” has become a safe term. A politically correct way to describe a complicated and forced assimilation. An easy way for those outside of our group to avoid the awkward and problematic word “black.” A way to not stare that ugly word in the face. And as I’ve blossomed into my own personal truth, I realized something pivotal: I’m over being awkward, I’m not interested in being politically correct, and I just don’t care how others feel about my truth.
I am Black.
Although “African-American” was my identity for many years, I’m now moving on. The term served its purpose for me, but no longer feels powerful. Actually, it feels slightly hollow. And definitely safe. So safe that it doesn’t even begin to speak to my struggle as a black citizen in mainstream America or my family’s history. Or my parents’ struggle as they were forced to drink from “coloreds only” water fountains. Better yet, my grandparents’ struggle as they could only attend segregated schools for Negros.
Or how about my great-grandparents’ struggle as they did the best they could to sharecrop the little piece of their painful American dream. Travel a couple generations back and “struggle” doesn’t even begin to describe the hell my enslaved ancestors experienced as they picked cotton in the scorching summer fields of Arkansas and Mississippi without so much as a time-card, contract, tip, receipt, reimbursement or “thank you.” Nan to this day.
Yup, I’m going with Black.
So yeah. “Black” feels better. Despite what Webster says, it’s my home. It soaks in my family’s history and my people’s collective experience. It takes all of our accumulated struggles and balls them up into one powerful word that represents me. “Black.” That single word covers a lot of ground. It describes our naturally beautiful and permanently melanized, sun-kissed black skin. It links my black past, present and future while simultaneously carrying my black ancestors’ burdens on my shoulders as I navigate my double-consciousness in this country.
My re-written Webster’s definition of “Black:”
Beauty. Power. Work. Resilience. Force. Bold. Strength. Forthcoming. Timeless. Truth.
When my children ask me what race we are, I answer straight and to the point. “We are black.” And they smile.