Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Why I am "African American"

Lashawn Barber, who identifies herself as a conservative Christian has made this comment about the term "African American":

"One of the many reasons I don’t like the term “African American” is that I’m not African, and I doubt any African — black or white — would claim me as such.

Being of African descent doesn’t make one African. It’s strange that we use the word “African” as a nationality when I suspect that true Africans refer to their countries when referring to their nationality, and not the continent."

I've spent many years thinking about the various terms used to describe people who look like myself and have decided that personally, African American is most accurate term. In explaining why, I want to respond to both aspects of the comment LaShawn Barber makes:

1. That she is not "African".

2. That so called "true Africans" refer to their countries when referring to their nationality, and not the continent.

First of all, I completely respect her right to decide how she defines herself and whatever relationship she believes she has to her heritage and history. Personally, I have to view the statement "I'm not an African" in its historical context. It is accurate to say that my enslaved ancestors who were brought to North America probably did not identify as "Africans" but primarily by their tribal or national identity. This continues to be true today among people from the African continent. However, my ancestors were subjected to a systematic assault on their tribal, national and cultural identities in such a way that they lost much of their conscious relationship with them and had to evolve in a new and hostile environment. The fires of tribulation melded them into a new group of people with a shared experience that transcended the diversity of their backgrounds before enslavement in the New World. Over time they forgot who they were and this was passed on from generation to generation, so that today, unlike my friends who are from Ghana, or Cameroon, or Kenya I cannot say what nation or tribe my ancestors came from. All I know with certainty is that at least some of them came from the African continent. Thus, when I identify as "African American" it has a double significance. It is a way to honor the origin of my ancestors and is also an acknowledgement of the wound that has been left in my consciousness due the history of physical, mental, and spiritual brutality they experienced. "African American" embodies both the joy and pain inherent in my identity. I also believe that those of us who are descended from the enslaved Africans brought to America have had an experience that is in some ways distinctive in the diaspora (What these specifically are is worthy of deep exploration). We are different from Blacks in the Caribbean, or South America or Africa or Europe. You could say that we represent a new "tribe" with a unique historical and cultural identity. For this reason I would agree that "African American" should not be used to describe any person of African ancestry living in the United States. It is how I chose to describe myself.Of course ultimately the terminology we use to describe ourselves is less important than dealing with the real challenges we face due to the legacy of racism:

"...among the black people in the United States, the adjective of choice has changed from colored to Negro, to black, to Afro-American to African American, and still no resolution has been reached in determining a universally acceptable and appropriate terminology for describing the race. This demonstrates really that the results sought are less inherent in terminologies than in the transformation of hearts..."
(From a letter addressed by the Universal House of Justice, to an individual Baha'i, May 23, 1990)

It is just such a transformation of hearts that is the mission of Baha'u'llah:

...is not the object of every Revelation to effect a transformation in the whole character of mankind, a transformation that shall manifest itself both outwardly and inwardly, that shall affect both its inner life and external conditions? For if the character of mankind be not changed, the futility of God's universal Manifestations would be apparent. (Baha'u'llah, The Kitab-i-Iqan, p. 240)