Let’s talk about the past, present, and future of Africans in America. Africans came to America either in chains or of their own volition. They came from both scattered tribes and unified kingdoms. They spoke or clicked different languages, they were of wildly different cultures, tribes, and nations, and they wrote using various scripts such as Coptic, Ge’ez, and Vai, but in America they are currently referred to by the one-size-fits-all term of “African-Americans”. Pardon me, but that’s about as accurate as calling Americans of Italian, Irish, and German descent “European-Americans”. Oh, sure, they’re all descended from Europeans, but aren’t the Irish different from the Germans? And aren’t they both different from the Italians? If they’re so different, then how accurate would it be to omit their nationality when referring to their ancestries and heritage? Not very, in my opinion. And that's what this essay is about: accuracy as applied to African-Americans and our future in America.
Going back hundreds of years, African-Americans were first scientifically classified as “Negroid”, a term that originally defined Africans as a bestial, mentally inferior race of darker-skinned sub-humans that were somehow closer to animal than man. The word itself was a symbol of racial misunderstanding, bigotry, and slavery, and the so-called “scientific” findings of the day greatly fostered its use, but please keep in mind that the use of leeches, bloodletting, and amputations conducted by animal butchers were once the medical standards of both Europe and early America. They were all once considered to be "scientific" methods. The even more derogatory N-word followed the inception of the unscientific term "Negro", and the two terms have dogged Africans in America for hundreds of years. Given that “Negro” embodied negative racial attributes, the N-word symbolized racial hatred, murder, and the unconscionable subjugation of African peoples past the Civil War era. In the mid-20th century, the push to remove the classification of Americans of African descent as “Negroes” began to take effect, and by the 1950s we were alternatively called “colored people” in idiotic fashion. Idiotic, because if dark-skinned people are “colored”, then what are lighter-skinned people -- “plain”? Isn’t white a color? Aren’t pink, red, and yellow all colors? Clearly, the answer is "yes". Cognizant of this, colored intellectuals and liberal Caucasians pushed an ancient classification into the forefront of the minds of the American people: call the Negroes “blacks”, they urged.
Many Americans of African descent, yours truly included, treat their classification as “black” with varying levels of ambivalence. While most black Americans freely interchange “black” with "African-American" when communicating with others, there exists a discernible level of dislike towards “black” because of the negative imagery that is culturally associated with the term. That is, America is possessed of a predominantly Euro-centric culture, and in that culture’s classic tales of good and evil it’s the heroes who symbolically wear white. “White” is symbolic of cleanliness, purity, virtue, and all things good. Conversely, “black” is symbolic of filth, contamination, sinfulness, and with the noted exception of the term "Black Friday", it stands for all things evil. Therefore, the symbolism behind “white” benefits Caucasians, for by embracing that classification, the literal and cultural definitions of the word are inherently theirs by birth. Again, the virtuous “good guys” tended to wear white or generally lighter-colored clothes in American popular fiction, while the vile, dastardly villains wore black and other dark colors.
Consider the symbolism behind the term “White Knight”. The White Knight is emblematic of the virtuous hero of yore riding to the rescue of those in distress, especially maidens most fair (of course). As to the Black Knight, it was the dark warrior who embodied those things against which the White Knight righteously battled. Consider that even in the often-reviled world of witchcraft, a “white” witch is defined as the practitioner of a clean, beneficial form of sorcery called “white” magic, while other witches are perceived to use evil and harmful forces called “black” magic. Additionally, and unfortunately, color comes into play even in those things whimsical. For example, The Wizard of Oz was a feminine and relatively modern example of White (Knight)/Black (Knight) interplay and cultural symbolism in that “Glenda, the Good Witch” was all light and good and glowing, while the “Wicked Witch of the West” was a foul creature of darkness and evil.
And let’s not forget another truth about the terms “white” and “black” as racial descriptors, that being the much overlooked fact that the terms are completely inaccurate and wrongly convey a sense of absolute polarization between the races. No human being alive is truly white or truly black in color, just varying shades of pink and brown. “White” works well for persons of European descent simply because of its positive connotations. Conversely, “black” works against darker peoples because of the negativism surrounding the word. Given the omnipresent and ingrained cultural perception of black/white symbolism, those who argue that the negative symbolism behind “black” affects neither the perception nor the lives of darker-complexioned people are either callous, naive, or just plain obtuse. Only those who’ve felt a cobra’s bite truly know and can truly describe the agony they endured, while anything else from anyone else is nothing but supposition.
Somewhere in the nebulous period between “colored” and “black American” came the term “Afro-American”. While it was understood by most that the “Afro” meant “of African origins”, it just never caught fire as a racial descriptor and swiftly vanished forever from the American lexicon like a puff of smoke. What certainly helped drive the term to its demise was its association with the “afro” hairstyle. The style was once very popular among blacks, but once the “afro” bit the dust, “Afro-American” seemed just as passé. While anyone with half a functioning brain cell now understands that the hairstyle and the symbolic term were but loosely related, the differentiation was never made clear to the American public.
That brings us to the adoption of “African-American” as a racial descriptor. Afro-centrists elevated the term in the public consciousness as a means of acknowledging the African heritage of black Americans and symbolizing our allegedly common heritage, but it backfired in two ways. First, as stated before, Africa is a land of many nations, tribes, and languages, and the term failed to offer a true national or tribal identity to black Americans. Second, African descendants emigrating from countries other than Africa to America often tend not to acknowledge their African roots, so the term is meaningless to them. Think about it. Have you ever heard of an “African-Jamaican”, or an “African-Briton”, or an “African-Canadian”? Of course you haven’t, and that’s because the push to embrace African heritage was primarily a black American effort, so blacks in countries other than the US are mostly referred to simply as black people or “black” of a given nationality. Therefore, the term “African-American” is strictly an Americanism without international recognition or true symbolism.
Back to “colored”. Somewhere along the line, the ridiculous and insensitive term “colored people” was twisted around into the more positive phrase “people of color”, and this was done in deliberate rebellion against the negative term “nonwhite”. If “white” symbolizes all things great, good and wonderful, then consider what its negative form represents. “Nonwhite” is to be not great, not good, and certainly not wonderful. Asinine, that’s what “nonwhite” is. I am not “nonwhite”. My humanity and my worth as a human being are not things measurable by that which I am not, but by that which I am. I, like my African-descended brethren, am not a negative, and I adamantly refuse to accept such classification. I applaud those activists, leaders, educators, and politicians who successfully railed against “nonwhite” and all that it represents.
Okay, so what should my fellow African descendants call themselves? To the rest of the world, we’re “blacks”, or at best, “Negroes”, and I believe that given the ever-diminishing influence the US has over international affairs, the world view should be the catalyst for change. But again, what do we call ourselves? Most non-Hispanic American blacks, especially the multitudes descended from slave stock, cannot accurately trace their ancestries to such a degree that the mother nation and/or tribe are readily identifiable. Alex Haley was extremely fortunate to have found sufficient background information to reconstruct the story of his ancestors, whereas most blacks are not as lucky. For the unlucky majority, tracing African “roots” is a nightmarish and frustrating thing due to the lack of antediluvian slave-trade documentation. Slaves were not passengers booked on pleasure cruises, but beasts of burden destined for lives of unending toil and abuse. They were bound by neck, wrist, and ankle, and locked in dark and fetid cargo holds. Death by the resultant physical affects of prolonged contact with feces, urine, blood, saliva, and other unsanitary conditions was both atrocious and commonplace. Certainly, Heaven had no mercy for those pitiable souls helplessly trapped on what was the lowest level of a seafaring Hell. Given such treatment from the beginning of their American enslavement, given that blacks were accorded less dignity than the lowest of animals, no records were kept per individual in the same vein that unique records were not maintained for individual pigs or horses.
For the disassociated majority, I believe that hope springs forth from the origins of the term “Caucasian”. Given that “Caucasian” signifies European peoples, then by that definition, white people gain racial categorization not by the entire continent of Europe or a single country within. No, they are scientifically classified in tribute to a distinctive geological feature found in Europe: Caucasia, the mountainous border that separates Europe from Asia. If whites are granted identity through an association with a geological feature, then why not lend that same association to blacks or Asians? Think about it. Blacks could honor mother Africa as “Saharans” or “Kalaharians” in honor of her desert expanses, or “Kilimanjaroans” or “Elgonians” in honor of her massive volcanoes, or “Adamawans” or “Ruwenzorians” in honor of her great, elevated ranges. Personally, I like the term “Atlasans” in tribute to Africa’s Atlas mountain range. Borrowing the name of Atlas, the Titan from Greek mythology, grants “Atlasan” an immediate symbolism that, unlike existing classifications, implies strength, endurance, and a lasting presence. Furthermore, “Atlasan”, like “Atlantean”, could be used to classify a lost people from a lost land. Whether or not Afro-centrists want to admit it, blacks mostly have no true sense of their individual African origins, making us a true “lost people” and Africa a virtual “lost land”. Perhaps that’s a stretch, but it sure as Hell beats the negativity of “black”, “nonwhite”, and the original definition of “Negroid”, and it all but eliminates the nebulousness of “African-American”. For blacks, the future isn’t in Africa. No, for us it's right here in America, and I believe that African descendants should embrace their American future with a new sense of self.
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