“To Be or Not to Be”: Choosing between a Black and African-American identity
“One ever feels his twoness-an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
W. E. B. Dubois, The Souls of Black Folk
For the past several months, I have been reading, listening, and speaking about identities and preferences, especially Americans. For people of color, we have to use hyphens to specify our ethnicities before identifying as Americans. Of course, white Americans can use this too, for example, Irish-American, Italian- American, so on and so forth. To quote Toni Morrison, “In this country, American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” It is as if the hyphen is a constant reminder of what you are not and that is American because of your otherness. The hyphen literally and figuratively separates your identities. As if being black and American makes you a foreigner. Hell, maybe it does.
For convenience sake, if you are white in America, there really is no need to identify you or your family’s origins. I could get into the quest for and to prove whiteness in America but this post is not about that. My objective here is to discuss the identities (naming) among people of African descent in America. For black people in America, specifically those who were born and raised here, what does it mean to be black? How should we name/identify ourselves? Is there any right or wrong answers to this question? Well I think that an answer to this question goes a lot deeper than a simple yes or no. I think that people should decide for themselves which term accurately describes them to their satisfaction.
For too long, we as people of African descent in America have been group, lumped, and stuffed into a categorical box as a way to keep from having to understand who and what we are. For centuries, people of African descent living in America, have been referred to and have identified as Africans in America, Negro, Colored, Black, Afro-American, and African-American. For some, it does not matter if Black or African-American is used. For others, there is a preference for various reasons. I prefer the term Black. My preference of the term Black is a rejection of the label African-American. I think that African-American is not synonymous with being black and is misleading. For example, actress Charlize Theron was born in Benoni, Gauteng, South Africa. In 2007, she became an American citizen. Theron was born to an Afrikaner family of French, German, and Dutch ancestors. Other than being born in South Africa, she is not black; she does not have a drop of black African blood. Her African-ness is not black. Due to her birthplace and now current place of residence and dual citizenship, she is legally considered African-American. Bottom line, African-American does not mean that one is black.
I prefer the term Black. For me, it is my identification no matter where in the world I am. As a pan-Africanist, it unifies me with all black people in the world. Pan-Africanism is the idea that all people of African descent throughout the African Diaspora are united. This unity is a critical component to the economic, political, and social upward mobility of African people throughout the African Diaspora. What I mean by the African Diaspora are the places in which African people dispersed throughout the world such as the Americas, Asia, the Middle East, and Australia. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was also a pan-Africanist and the author of The Souls of Black Folk, in which, he discusses “double consciousness.” Du Bois’ concept of double-consciousness is the reflection and burden of being black and American in America. To be Black and American, these two identities constantly at war with one another. The struggle to understand what each mean separately and collectively.
My preferring black over African-American is not my way of rejecting the notion of double-consciousness, quite the opposite. I am aware of the struggles that come with being black and American, especially in America. I have been to France where my American-ness was not an issue but my blackness was celebrated, embraced, and eroticized. And no, I did not feel as if I was being fetishized. I traveled to South Africa where my American-ness was celebrated and my blackness embraced. In America, my American-ness sometimes feel foreign, I attribute some of these feelings to my needing to be elsewhere other than in America. Here in America, my blackness and womanhood is often attacked, sometimes either/or, sometimes both, at the same time.
Based on conversations and observations, many people choose the term African-American in order to assert their American-ness. For them, they can immediately place themselves in America, were born and raised here, have family here who have been here for generations, and have never been any other place but here. America is what they know, sometimes, all they know. In addition, many use it because other than knowing they are black, their African ancestry is so far removed. Africa is foreign to them. It is unknown which ancestors came from Africa as well as where in Africa their roots are located. This is the point Raven-Symoné was trying to make when she sat down with Oprah in an interview for OWN’s “Where Are They Now?” During this conversation, Raven talked about her disdain with labels especially those regarding her sexuality and racial identity. She states, “I’m tired of being labeled. I’m an American. I’m not an African-American; I’m an American…I mean, I don't know where my roots go to. I don't know how far back they go... I don't know what country in Africa I'm from, but I do know that my roots are in Louisiana. I'm an American. And that's a colorless person."
As I stated earlier, I think that the term African-American is misleading. Here I am in agreement with Raven. I understand Raven’s argument about not wanting to be labeled as such. What I do find problematic is her referring to her ancestry roots in Louisiana as colorless. No matter how ethnically mixed up her ancestors in Louisiana were/are, colorless is not a way to define or identify them. Her statement, “…I do know that my roots are in Louisiana. I'm an American. And that's a colorless person” alludes to her desiring a colorblind society. I do not want to assume that this statement say as much but I can only go by what I have heard and read and colorblind lens is what I am getting from this statement. I want to live in a society that is race-less, sex-less (elimination of sexism), violent-less, poverty-less, drug-less, etc. What I do not want is to live in a society that is colorless- colorblind. For me to identify myself as a black woman is a powerful statement. I love being black and woman. Both, at the same time. This intersectionality is everything to me. However, it is not the summation of who I am. Me and my many intersections.
When I think of people saying, “I teach my children not to see color,” I cringe. There is nothing wrong with seeing one’s color. The problem comes with seeing a person’s color and using it against them- colorism. If this post was about racism, I would argue that colorblindness is actually racist, but this is not that post, so I digress. When people see me, they see a golden brown black woman, the result of a dark complexioned father and a light complexioned mother. I want you to see my color but what you will not do is use it to oppress me. Some people I know who prescribe to colorblindness argue that they are concerned with a person’s character. That sounds good and all, however, by denying that you do not see one’s color is to say that you refuse to see people. Why deny that part of a person? How can you really see a person if you decide to be blind to important parts of them? For me, my color, my blackness, is an important part of who I am as well as whom and where I come from. Being a black woman, a person of African descent, it traces and places my roots to the birth of mankind, the Motherland. To me, that is powerful and beautiful. I am proud of it. See it. Ask me about it. Do not be blind to it.