By: Richard Johnson.
Lately, there has been increasing debate over what we should call ourselves, African-American, Black, Afro-American, and yes even Negro. I am not here to advocate for one descriptor or another, however I do think that any discussion about our identity should be put into the context of how we got where we are today. For the sake of this discussion, I separated our journey from Africa to where we find ourselves in present day America into three phases: enslavement, the awakening, and the current reality.
Let’s start with the enslavement of our forebears. American history tends to broad-brush this chapter of history. We are taught that that the enslaved people came from Africa. Africa is a continent comprised of 54 countries. There is no mention of the countries of origin for the enslaved, no mention of Nations or the villages, from which the enslaved were stolen.
However, if you look for greater detail, you will find some little spoken of facts:
Where our forbearers were stolen from (country/region)
Senegambia (Senegal-Gambia) * 5.8%
Sierra Leone 3.4%
Windward Coast (Ivory Coast) * 12.1%
Gold Coast (Ghana) * 14.4%
Bight of Benin (Nigeria) * 14.5
Bight of Biafra (Nigeria) * 25.1%
Central and Southeast Africa (Cameroon-N. Angola) * 24.7%
Wolof, Mandingo, Malinke, Bambara, Papel, Limba, Bola, Balante, Serer, Fula, Tucolor
Temne, Mende, Kisi, Goree, Kru.
WINDWARD COAST (including Liberia):
Baoule, Vai, De, Gola (Gullah), Bassa, Grebo.
Ewe, Ga, Fante, Ashante, Twi, Brong
BIGHT OF BENIN & BIGHT OF BIAFRA combined:
Yoruba, Nupe, Benin, Dahomean (Fon), Edo-Bini, Allada, Efik, Lbibio, Ljaw, Lbani, Lgbo (Calabar)
CENTRAL & SOUTHEAST AFRICA:
BaKongo, MaLimbo, Ndungo, BaMbo, BaLimbe, BaDongo, Luba, Loanga, Ovimbundu, Cabinda, Pembe, Imbangala, Mbundu, BaNdulunda
Other possible groups that maybe should be included as an “Ancestral group” of African Americans:
Fulani, Tuareg, Dialonke, Massina, Dogon, Songhay, Jekri, Jukun, Domaa, Tallensi, Mossi, Nzima, Akwamu, Egba, Fang, and Ge. [Philip D. Curtin’s book, “The Atlantic Slave Trade”, (1969), p. 221.]
I am intentionally using minute detail to breakdown our cultural and national origins to help make my point. The theft of the human bodies from the African continent is only part of the story. Just imagine being swept-up and taken to another land cramped inside the hole of a ship with other Africans that you can’t communicate with for the most part because you are from different countries, different regions, different nations, and speak different languages and/or dialects. As it turns out, this was the de-facto first step to severing ties to your homeland, your heritage, your history and by default your sense of purpose. The next step was to forbid the enslaved from speaking their own language, practicing their own culture, and even using their African given names. Now let’s jump back on-track and talk about identity theft.
Once you have enslaved a people and robbed them of their cultural identity what do you call them. The Spanish and Portuguese referred to the Africans as negro (nay-grow) which is an adjective derived from Latin meaning black. Somehow in the inhumane ordeal of slavery that adjective got converted to a noun and the slavers began to refer to the enslaved as Negroes. It is very tempting to expose more of the ugliness of the slavery-era at this point. However, that is not my intent in this article. Let me say this. In short order the term Negro had descended to an ugly racial slur the N-word and Black was associated with every negative one could imagine. The term Colored seemed to be a politically correct term that was fostered in part by the founding of the NAACP which was an integrated mostly white organization at its inception. Keep in mind that all of these names had a White genesis. Now let’s move into the awakening.
Although there were many incidents of the enslaved defying bondage by suicides-of-defiance, rebellions, escapes, and the infamous Amistad mutiny, the awakening for the sake of this discussion took place later. The Civil Rights movement was the most recognized outward manifestation of the fact that Black people had enough of bad treatment, and were willing to take to the streets for change. Simultaneous to the civil rights movement was the growing numbers of the Black Nationalist movement of the Nation of Islam and the more militant Black Power movement. The mainstay of the Civil Rights movement was non-violent social disobedience and the Black power movement had an undercurrent of “By any means Necessary”. The Civil Rights movement was personified by Martin Luther King Jr. The Black Nationalist movement was personified by The Honorable Elijah Muhammad and later Malcolm X. The Black Power Movement was personified by the Black Panthers, and Angela Davis to name a few. The Black Power movement gave birth to the “Black is Beautiful” campaign to fly directly in the face of Whites who wanted to paint everything Black as undesirable. James Brown contributed mightily to the campaign for Black people to take control of their own identity with his hit record “I’m Black and I’m Proud”. No longer will Black people be Negroes, Colored, or any other name that White people wanted to call us. Fast forward to the middle 1980’s after a poet used the term African-American in his poem, the descriptor of African-American became widely accepted by Blacks and was a symbol of reclaiming the African heritage that was all but stolen in slavery. Now back to the current day discussion.
I believe that there should be an open discussion of what American-born Blacks should call themselves because there are questions that need to be answered. In the face of recent increase African immigration into this country what does African-American mean today? How do we deal with the reality and baggage that comes with being descendants of the enslaved? Is Black still Beautiful? Are we still proud? Is want we call ourselves an important issue?
I hope that this article provides some food for thought and adds context to any future discussions.