I have never preferred the term “African American.”
Not because I have some grudge against my African lineage. I am good with being part of the African Diaspora. I am proud of being part of the African Diaspora.
Like Zora Neale Hurston once wrote, “No one on earth ever had a greater chance for glory. The world to be won and nothing to be lost.”
I just feel that “African American” doesn’t provide accurate enough cues about how I conceptualize my racial identity, and I believe that’s what your label – since society pretty much forces you to have one – should ultimately do.
The label that I use to signify my racial identity is “black.” I do not capitalize the B because black is an adjective. I do not use it as proper noun because it sounds odd to refer to myself as a Black. I am a woman or an American. I am black. I don’t rank these things in order of influence or relevance, but I do feel that my blackness is the mold for my gender and nationality. I would not be the woman or American I am if I wasn’t black.
I chose “black” as my label back in college. I started undergrad in 1994. I grew up on “The Cosby Show” and “A Different World” – sitcoms about a black family and a black college. And hip hop was the soundtrack for my life – black music that was almost too black for a lot of black people. I wasn’t a trendy Afrocentric, or a Malcolm X head, but I rocked a medallion, and I read the Autobiography. I refuted colorism, and I caped for Rodney King and – *sigh* – OJ. I wrote poetry about my liminal social status. I watched Spike Lee movies despite their misogyny, and I listened to Ice Cube despite his.
At some point, “African American” got foisted upon me in the academic discourse, and I began to use it. But I never liked it. I never made friends with it.
I wrote “African American” in all of my essays, but I still called myself black. I typically said “black” in conversation. It was just more natural to me.
I would definitely catch white people shifting uncomfortably in their seats when I used the word “black,” away from its lack of subtlety, but I enjoyed their discomfort. I can’t lie. To me, it was a karmic boomerang.
All of my life, white people had tried to make me feel uncomfortable about my blackness. Now, they felt uncomfortable about it. That made sense to me.
Since they were the ones that had a problem with it, I thought, they should be the ones to carry the negative feelings about it.
This was an easy thought for me because I love being black. And I love being “black.”
I like “black” because of its particular relationship to my descent.
There were no plain “black” people until Africans came to America and had their original identities snatched from them.
They were handed “black” – a term that exemplified the thing that mattered most to their new masters – the color of their skin – the marker of their difference; “black” was a linguistic badge of their displacement and status as chattel.
“Black” became their race and nationality because “American” was too ambiguous when applied across the board. It mixed everyone together with no signification of who should be at the top of the heap and who should be at the bottom.
That is why I don’t call myself a “black American.” The truest Americans are white, just as the Constitution intended. Americans are due very specific entitlements. They are due the protection of the government and law enforcement. They are due the full, free exercise of their rights and civil liberties. And black people don’t have these things, even now, in 2018.
So I don’t say I am a “black American” because I don’t wish to erase the legacy of my ancestors’ disfranchisement or deny my own experience as a second class citizen.
I think it is important for people to know that I don’t always feel at home in my own country. I want the agents that foster my feelings of powerlessness to be recognized for the fucked-up shit they do; I refuse to let them off the proverbial hook.
Yet, I am American, definitely not first or foremost, but still pretty emphatically. The slave system from which I originated was unique to America, and the black people that bequeathed their rich and powerful legacy to me were American.
I can only trace my lineage back to Alabama, right outside of Birmingham, on my mother’s side and North Carolina on my father’s.
I was born in the US, and I have only ever lived in the US. I was raised and conditioned by American pop and political culture and public education. I was college educated in America, and I have only ever worked in America.
Too, I believe in the highest ideals of America. I cherish the freedoms and liberties granted by our Constitution. I believe in the redemptive qualities of our election and judicial processes. Even as I acknowledge that both are in dire need of major improvements.
My worldview is entirely informed by the fact that I was born and grew up black in America. And that is another reason I don’t say I am “African American” – because it pushes America to the background of my identity, when it is very much in the fore.
I don’t even know from which part of Africa my ancestors came, and, even if I did take one of those magical genetic tests and find out, I wouldn’t have anything more to connect me to those ancestors than the code for a shared allele.
All I could form from the results of a test like that is an academic concept of my origins. And I’m a pragmatist.
I could study how people lived in 16th or 17th century Benin or Biafra or Gold Coast or Senegambia – the most likely places my ancestors lived on the Continent – but that wouldn’t give me any true insight into the day-to-day lives of my ancestors before they crossed the Atlantic.
I need names and stories of people to feel like I am a part of them. I need to be able to run the fingers of my mind over the textures of their experiences.
As I said, the kidnapped Africans became a new kind of people when they arrived in America; their existence in this country was not a mere continuation of their existence in Africa. They weren’t allowed to retain their native languages, religions, or cultural practices except in scraps.
Like the black foremothers that began our robust quilting tradition, the African migrants had to piece together a new identity and culture.
And that transitional identity is a much more workable root for me than anything that was happening in Africa before slavery because I can trace it much more accurately, in much more detail, up to my existence.
My particular blackness is formed by the residual oppression of slavery. This is not something of which to be ashamed, in my opinion. I am not ashamed of it. But it does make me angry on an existential level. And I am often
That is another reason I prefer “black.” People habitually associate blackness with anger. They assume black people are angry because they know our history in this country, and they know it is egregious.
And I wish to capitalize on that assumption. I want people to think that I am angry at America because I am. I want people to recognize my anger and know they can’t shame me out of it.
A couple of years back, when I was working on my bio for the blog, I found a quote from an essay by Mark A. Rockeymoore that defined blackness in the exact way that I think about it.
Rockeymoore described an afro in the essay, but I thought this description was a perfect metaphor for the spirituality of blackness, so I cribbed it for the bio. And I’ll repeat it here because I still appreciate it as much now as I did then:
An afro ain’t never been about anything constricting or orderly, in the hierarchical sense. Rather, an afro is free-flowing, loving the wind. Changing, shifting and drifting on the breeze, bending this way, puffing out or just plain swaying from side to side, following the whimsical inclinations of the melanated person upon who’s head it is perched. An afro can be taken from, it can be added to, yet it still retains its own natural structure, its own spiral and bouncy nature. It is flexible, yet patterned. It is about synthesis and holism. It is about accepting the kitchens and working the waves on the crown. It is about dreading, locking and following the patterns of nature where they lead, yet following a laterally delineated order. It is about the interplay between dominant and recessive genes. It is about diversity. It is about knowing purposes and determining the placement of diverse variables within the proper context . . .
This concept of blackness is Afrofuturistic, which I why I call myself “Afro-black” in my bio.
The strict definition of the term afrofuturism, written by its originator Mark Dery, is this: “Speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture – and more generally, African American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future.”
Rockeymoore clarifies that “Afrofuturism is not science-fiction. It is not a mechanical, technology driven vision of the future.” He envisions it as the “interplay of race, culture, and time” coalescing in moments of crystalline realization that the “moment is the real” and the “future and past are fluid and ever-changing, possessing the ability to morph instantly into social texts capable of accentuating the diverse realities of the melanated mind during fabulous flights of intuition, delving into the nature of perception and birthing successive moments from the contemplation of those that have passed and those that are yet to come.”
Ytasha Womack says that Afrofuturism arises from the concept that race is a “technology” that people use for their own reasons. Mark W. Thrasher writes, “The deployment of this technology has created racism . . . but . . . [it] can be upgraded.”
He writes, “Race is a fiction – which has only existed as we presently conceive it over the past few hundred years, since European colonialism and American chattel slavery began peddling its mythology. But despite being a fiction, its effects are so real in our lives that it can be difficult to imagine ourselves outside our present hell.”
He, Womack, Dery, and Rockeymoore all seem to agree that Afrofuturism – embodying a blackness that gives you the mental and spiritual if not physical ability to “transcend . . . cultural milieu and dream the dreams of the soul . . . deepen [your] understanding of the present moment and [exercise] the divine right and strength to make [your] visions manifest through [your] own actions” is the only way out of the hell on earth that is racist oppression.
As Thrasher explains it: “Black people [are] told they must adhere to divisions which don’t exist . . . and only accept a limited number of stories about ourselves, such that we have an extremely limited concept of what material reality can be. Racism can give black Americans the impression that in the past we were only slaves who did not rebel; that in the present, we are passive people beaten by police who cannot fight back; and that in the future, we simply do not exist.”
Afrofuturism allows us to push off this refracted vision of ourselves. It allows us to see ourselves lucidly – as people rather than inevitable pawns.
So, when I wrote in my bio that I am Afro-black, I was saying that I am the descendant of slaves, but I am more than the descendant of slaves.
I am black, but I am everything else I am, too.
I was saying I may be oppressed or suppressed or depressed, but I don’t have to remain in any sort of pit because I am a part of the whole of creation, and the whole of creation is available to me; I can go anywhere and do anything within it that I imagine.
That is how I feel, too.
There may be a paradigmatic concept of acceptable or respectable American blackness, and a vilified correlative of niggerdom, but I do not fully nor do I have to embody either one.
I am the black that I say I am.
I am the black that I want to be.
I am black because I want to be.