On occasion I get upset at the mindset of African Americans and their disregard for all things African. I also have some concerns with denouncing the term “African American” as a viable means of identifying ourselves within the United States culture.
I was sitting with some friends and we began discussing the plight of African Americans in the country, but before we could get into an in debt conversation, one of my friends said, “I am not African American. I’ve never been to Africa. I don’t have any intentions of going to Africa. Besides, they don’t like us anyway!” My response was, “So what would you rather be called?” “Black!” she responded. I was perplexed because I thought that we had evolved in terms of our identity and to hear someone of African decent still vehemently refer to themselves as color of streets really bothered me.
In many ways our American identity has really been a detriment to our psyche. Wrapped up within the fibers of this society is an idea of beauty that permeates our very existence. That idea doesn’t look like us in some regards and exemplifies us in others. This leads many people of African decent (all over the world) to have a sort of distorted view of how they look and feel about themselves and their ancestry.
I was very lucky to grow up in a household where self image was very important. I remember when Budweiser would post the great kings and queens of Africa in Ebony magazine. My mother would make sure to cut them out and tape them to the walls of our kitchen. It got to the point where I would look forward to each new picture, reading and rereading each one as if they were talking about me. In essence they were, because in those pictures, I realized that my history didn’t start in the United States. It started in Africa. In those pictures I saw myself; strong, courageous, and dignified.
My mother would also make sure that every doll my sister owned was “Black”. If a “Baby-That-Away” came on the market, my mother painstakingly searched every mall till she found the Black version. My sister never owned a Barbie, but she did own Barbie’s Black friend, “Christie”. If someone bought my sister a White doll, my mother immediately took it back to the store and exchanged it for a Black one. Even I owned the Black version of GI Joe. This wasn’t because she was trying to be militant or prejudicial. It was because she recognized that a healthy self image is important.
If you consider yourself “Black”, Jamaican, Haitian, Brazilian, or Trinidadian, you can trace your roots back to Africa. Unfortunately many people of African descent don’t even realize it because they don’t know the origin of their history. They don’t fully comprehend that the Atlantic slave trade went through the Americas, Europe and the Caribbean unloading African slaves. Some, as in the Africans of the Caribbean, were able to hold on to many aspects of their culture. Others, like the Africans of Brazil, acculturated into full fabric of their society. While still others, like Africans from the United States, attempted to assimilate, but because of a constant ideology of perverse racism that has permeated every segment of our society from religion to entertainment, have had to struggle with self hatred and lack or identity. What’s particularly disturbing is that we are all, through out the African Diasporas, blood related and connected through bondage. The term “African” could be used to unite us all in terms of our relationship to each other and our connection to the motherland.
Scientist have hypothesized that Africa is the beginning of civilization. Many of the world’s greatest and most essential inventions boast their origins from there. Throughout history it has produced some to the greatest thinkers, built some of the most powerful nations, and boasted some of the most physically stunning people in the world. Ancient Greeks viewed Africans as exotic and celebrated them in all aspects of the arts. It has also been hypothesized that Greeks stole their philosophy, religion, and much of their culture from Africans. That topic, however, has been much debated by Afrocentrist and classical historians.
I firmly believe African is our ethnicity, but American is our nationality. Why is it that every other ethnicity can proudly claim who they are and yet it’s still difficult for African Americans? If you asked Polish or Italians what is their nationality, they would definitely say, with pride, American. However, Polish and Italian Americans still claim their native countries even if they don’t speak the language or have ever stepped foot on their ancestral shores. The same goes for the Chinese, Japanese, Hispanics, Russian, or Portuguese. (In California, I’ve seen hundreds of Mexican flags on cars, homes or being waved at protest rallies.) Irish Americans celebrate their Irish ancestry every year during St. Patrick’s Day. Columbus Day is celebrated by Italian Americans. Cinco de Mayo is hugely celebrated by Mexican Americans and Armenian Martyr’s Day is celebrated by Armenian Americans. This doesn’t make them any less Americans, in fact, it celebrates the very ideal of this country being a “Melting Pot”. The disconnect comes when African Americans only identify by the color Black. It many regards, it’s just a direct opposition to the term White, but more importantly, it’s a serious implication that our history started in this country with slavery.
By the 1860’s there were approximately 4 million African slaves in the United States. Although it was one of the vilest institutions in our nation’s history, its tragedy is something that really needs to be explored and embraced by our community. If Jews can transform the horrors of the Holocaust into a symbol of motivation in order to uplift their people, then we certainly can do the same with slavery. It is off the backs, blood, sweat and tears of our ancestors that this country manifested its greatness. We are derived from the strongest stock, both mentally and physically, and even the threat of death couldn’t keep our ancestors from reaching some of the greatest milestone the world has ever known. All of which should be embraced as a form of inspiration and gratitude, not embarrassment. In my opinion, there lies our disengagement with the term African.
Being from a people who were once enslaved in this country is nothing to be ashamed of. Not only were Jews former slaves, but they were also subjected to a ghastly genocide by a group of people that wanted to annihilate them from the face of the planet. Yet, despite their horrifying history, they understand its complexity. Therefore they’ve been able to turn their tragedy into a form of inspiration and achievement. They’ve also, as a whole, never abandoned their ethnicity, even though during the Nazi era, it would have been practical to have done so. The only major difference is that Jews can trace their ancestral origin. African Americans, unfortunately, can not.
Many Whites as well as other Africans and Arabs participated in the Atlantic slave trade. Since they were outnumbered either on the ships or plantations, in order to protect themselves from uprisings, slave owners and overseers would separate African countrymen so that they didn’t speak the same language. Once brought to the United States and sold throughout the South, the only common language most Africans had with each other was English. Therefore, without their native language most of their culture was lost as they intermingled with each other. Furthermore there was the threat of death if any of them attempted to learn to write, so without written language and others to talk to in their native languages, cultures were partially or completely eradicated after one or two generations. This happened throughout the African Slave Diaspora. However, slaves within the Caribbean were able to keep hold of a large part their culture because there was a larger ratio between slaves and owners, therefore less of an intrusiveness on their established heritage. With that being said, even though Caribbeans were able to preserve a lot of their traditions and speech patterns, they are still a mixture of the different African tribes, thus loosing much of their language and consequently their defined ethnic identity.
Even the term “African” is not entirely correct because the continent was termed by Europeans. The idea of being African is new to the people of Africa. Most “Africans” identify themselves by their tribe or country; Kenyan, Ethiopian, Nigerian, Sudan, ect, and not the continent. The word itself doesn’t really show the vast differences amongst the races of people that exist on the continent. However, for African Americans, it’s the best we can do to identify our legacy.
Some may argue that to identify as African American is a constant reminder of a history lost. Because we can only trace our history back to a continent; that has a myriad of nations with an even greater amount of tribes and dialects is not only preposterous, but painful. What other group of people on the planet has had their history completely eradicated? On the other hand, we have no choice but to accept that that is the case with us. In the best regards, that is what makes us truly “African” because we are a mixture of different African tribes therefore making the term even more poignant in our uniqueness.
Part of the demise of African Americans comes from not fully embracing who we are and where we came from. We are so focused on assimilation that we fail to recognize how we can further use our internal strength to continue to uplift our people. Somehow, we think our successes are by accident and not internally designed and until we fully comprehend who we are, we will never claim our rightful place, here in our own country.
As Black Americans, our heritage begins with slavery, but as an African American, it begins with civilization.” I’m an African who is a proud American. I could care less what Africans born on the continent think of me. And when I finally get to there, I will claim the soil and the richness of its being as my own. I will cry and celebrate all the ancestors I’ve never known or because of colonialism, will never have a chance to discover.
I also claim this country. I am entitled to every right and privilege afforded every American. My ancestors built this country. They made it strong and if I did not claim myself an American, I would be negating everything they stood and died for. I will proudly call myself an African American. It is my birthright as well as the greatest honor I can give those that fought before me and those I teach in the present.