Thursday, September 1, 2011

Why We Call Ourselves "African American"

Written by Azizi Powell

Editor: This is a slightly revised version of an essay that I wrote in 2005:

Once upon a time, as I'm sure that you're aware, some people of African descent in the United States used the referent 'African' to describe themselves. As evidence of this, one can point to the Protestant denominations "AME" (African Methodist Episcopal) and "AME Zion" (African Methodist Episcopal Zion).

Time passed. Time passed. And eventually some people of African descent preferred to be called "Negroes" (note the capital "n"). But other people in that same population preferred to be called "Colored". Actually, "Colored" could be considered an apt name for that population given the wide range of skin colors for individuals within our group- from white, and many shades of brown, to blue black. Perhaps for that reason "Colored people" is the group referent that was selected to describe us by one of our most active national organizations, the NAACP (The National Association Of Colored People). The term "colored people" remains in the name of that civil rights organization. However, while the word "Colored" aptly suggests the melanin in our complexions, that word doesn't link us to any geographical place. Therefore, some of us weren't happy with that name.

In the mid to late 1960s, the referents for Black Americans were really in flux. During that time, a number of African countries were becoming independent nations. For the first time that many of us were aware, the continent of Africa, and African cultures were getting some favorable press. Thus for a growing number of Black Americans it was a matter of pride to be identified with historical & contemporary mother Africa.

At that same time in the United States, the "melting pot theory" was being ditched for the 'multi-cultural' mosaic theory on how American culture is shaped. As a result of this paradigm shift, the mass media was paying more attention to the positive contributions that each hyphenated ethnic group in the United States provided to the whole.

If was therefore not surprising that eventually the terms "Afro-American" and "Afra-American" were added to the list of hyphenated Americans [although as per Americans' custom to simplify things, the two words came to be used without the hyphen]. Because of multi-culturalism you heard more about "Italian Americans", "Asian Americans", "Native Americans", and "Irish Americans". And you also heard about "European Americans", although I believe California's Latino Americans started using the group referent "Anglo American" instead of "European American" and the use of that referent has spread from there.

However, some formerly Negro, formerly Colored people argued that we should just use "black" or "black Americans' as our formal group referent. But everyone didn't agree. The contenders for the "what should be the formal referent for Black folks in the United States" were African, Negro, Colored, Black (or black), Afro-American and others but definitely NOT the "n word".

For a while "Afro-American" appeared to winning the competition to be chosen as our formal group referent & personal referent. But then a number of Black folks noticed that the beginning word for all other hyphenated population names in the USA referred to a geographical place-a homeland. And these same folks or others noticed that 'afro' spelled with a small 'a' was the name of a natural hairstyle that was gaining prominence at that time among some segments of Black Americans. Few brothers and sisters wanted their formal group name to be confused with the name of a hairstyle, especially not one that some Black folks had problems accepting. Black power was on the rise and activist Reverend Jesse Jackson and some other noted Black leaders began to assert that our group name should promote a connection with the glories of Africa past and the promise of Africa now and in the future.

What name would it be? "Why, 'African American' of course!" the leaders exclaimed. And the people followed their leaders' lead as people usually do.

So that was how "African American" won the "what-should-we-be called?" contest. And that is why "African American" remains the formal referent for Black Americans today.

[Sat on a pin. My story end.]

-Azizi Powell

...." When did the word Negro become socially unacceptable?
It started its decline in 1966 and was totally uncouth by the mid-1980s. The turning point came when Stokely Carmichael coined the phrase black power at a 1966 rally in Mississippi. Until then, Negro was how most black Americans described themselves. But in Carmichael's speeches and in his landmark 1967 book, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America, he persuasively argued that the term implied black inferiority. Among black activists, Negro soon became shorthand for a member of the establishment. Prominent black publications like Ebony switched from Negro to black at the end of the decade, and the masses soon followed. According to a 1968 Newsweek poll, more than two-thirds of black Americans still preferred Negro, but black had become the majority preference by 1974. Both the Associated Press and the New York Times abandoned Negro in the 1970s, and by the mid-1980s, even the most hidebound institutions, like the U.S. Supreme Court, had largely stopped using Negro."

Here's a comment that I added to a discussion about what group referent are used by Caribbean people living in the USA:

"I think people should take with a grain of salt (meaning not automatically believe) what any one Black person from the USA says about which self-referent/s or group referents people of African descent (including people of Caribbean descent) use in the USA.

I don't believe that there is one definite answer regarding the questions:

1. Which referent/s do people use for themselves if they have some Black African descent and they are from the Caribbean and/but they live in the United States?

2. Which referent/s for themselves do the descendants of those people so described above use if they were born in the USA and/or they live in the United States?

And when can those people and their descendants legitimately refer to themselves as "African Americans"?

I think that personal choice plays a BIG role in which referents ALL of these people can legitimately use.

On a personal note, my maternal grandmother was from Barbados and my maternal grandfather was from Trinidad. I have no recollection of them EVER referring to themselves as "Bajan" or Trinididian" or "Caribbean". My grandfather died in the late 1950s and probably referred to himself by whichever racial referents for Black people in the United States were being used at that time [Negro, Colored People]. My grandmother died in the 1980s but because of her age and because of custom, she probably also referred to herself as a "Negro" or a "Colored" person. I have no recollection whatsoever of my mother, my maternal aunt, and my maternal uncles ever referring to themselves as "Caribbean" or "Black Caribbean" or "Bajan" or "Trini" or "Trinidadian". They also used/use whatever racial referents for Black people were currently being used in the USA.

Note: my mother and two of my uncles were born in the USA, but my aunt and my other uncles were born in Barbados. But, to my knowledge, that didn't effect how they referred to themselves. Also, I believe that my maternal grandparents and my maternal aunt & uncles who weren't born in the USA had green cards, but I don't know if they ever became USA citizens. But my contention is that my relatives who were born in Barbados used the same self-referents as many Black people born in the USA i.e. "Negro", "Colored People", and later "Black" and "African American".

Although I'm a Black "Unitedstater" who has some Caribbean ancestry, I have NEVER referred to myself as "Caribbean" or "Afro-Caribbean" or "Black Caribbean". I now use the referents "African American" formally and informally use "Black" or "Black American". However, depending on the circumstances, I might also share that my maternal grandparents were from the Caribbean and I might also share which Caribbean nations they were from.

And the two times that my daughter [who is 3rd generation Caribbean on her maternal side] went to the Caribbean festival "Caribana" in Toronto, Canada, she purchased and waved a Trinidadian flag, mostly just for fun.

In my opinion, more people should recognize that there are multiple ethnic groups among African Americans. "Caribbean" is an ethnic group/s. So is "Creole" and "Gullah" and so, for example, is "Kenyan" or "Nigerian" when people born in those nations live in the United States and their descendants are born in the United States.

Sharing information about my Caribbean ancestry doesn't mean that I'm less of an African American. It just adds more information about my roots"
- Azizi Powell, ; 7/5/2012

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. That's an interesting history. Do you know, though, if there is any group label for naturalized Americans from Africa (i.e., people who were born and raised in Africa and later -- as adults -- came to the US -- for whatever reason -- and eventually became US citizens)?

    As a more nuanced level to that question, is there a different label given to people who born in the US to parents who -- themselves -- emigrated from Africa?

    And also, what about White Africans who become nationalized in the US?

    (As you probably know already, I'm not a big proponent of the concept of 'race', since it has so many inconsistencies and inherent biases that fail to transfer once one tries to expand the narrow definitions that they initially spawned.)

  2. Hello, umlud.

    It's good to see you posting here.

    I believe that "African American" could be the correct answer to each of your questions, although probably a number of people in all of those groups might be more used to and more comfortable (because of custom) continuing to refer to themselves using ethnic or national referents other than "African American".

    I know several adults, teens, and pre-teens living in the USA who are born to [Black] Africans. I believe that most of them refer to themseIves as African American but they may just call themselves Black. I also know several Black people who were born in other nations and now live in the USA. Some call themselves African Americans. Some don't. And I know a number of couples where one partner is African American (meaning a person with at least on birth parent who has some Black African descent) and one Black partner was born outside of the USA to parents where neither was African American.

    Politically it may not matter overmuch what they call themselves as the fact that they are Black is what is most important in this nation. This is particularly the case if they physically present as Black (skin color, hair texture). Practically speaking it doesn't matter what they call themselves. If they "look African American"*, they will face the same discrimination and danger as people who could were born in this country to at least one African American parent.

    It should be remembered that many of those people who are historically considered to be African American leaders, artists, activists etc weren't born in the USA.

    *I realize some African Americans look White or look other than what people usually think of when they describe African Americans.

    Black is more inclusive than African American. An African American is (usually considered to be) Black. But all Black people aren't African American.

    I KNOW that this doesn't make a lot of sense and I KNOW that the United States's definition of who is Black uses the racist one drop rule (one drop of "Black blood" no matter how many generations ago and no matter how the person looks means a person is Black. And, it appears that that social definition might be weakening.
    I've read on a couple of blogs that a White person has indicated that she or he had a Black birth grandfather or grandmother (or great grandfather or grandmother). If someone had publicly indicated that in the past, then she or he wouldn't be allowed to considered to be White.

    Personally, I think that people who are racially mixed should be able to be either or both races their parents are, regardless of how dark or light they are. But I don't think we're there yet because there is still systemic and personal racism and because there is still White priviledge.

  3. The African-American Migration Experience is an interesting website that provides more information about who is African American:

    Here's an except from that website:

    "The new interpretation of African-American history that we present here also puts the Caribbean, Haitian, and contemporary African immigrations into the unfolding of the African-American migration experience. Peoples of the African Diaspora have contributed immensely to the fabric of African America and the nation. They too, with their specificities, are part of the African-American experience. Whether they came from Saint Domingue in 1791 and settled in Louisiana, left the Bahamas in the nineteenth century to develop Miami and Key West, Florida, or recently moved from Nigeria to Texas...

    In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience underscores and explains the extraordinary diversity of African Americans living in the United States today. For the first time in history all the components of the African Diaspora are gathered together. The United States is the only place, the present time the only time. African Americans, Africans, Afro-Caribbeans, Central Americans and South Americans of African descent, as well as Africans and Afro-Caribbeans born in Europe live side by side, each group bringing its specificities, culture, and sense of identity. The ethnic and cultural diversity of the black population has never been greater, and richer. And it is all part of the African-American migration experience. This site gives the opportunity to African descended peoples to trace their own histories and the histories of the other groups that form the African Diaspora. It is a resource for discovering their common and not-so-common histories and exploring future possibilities."

    1. I revisited this post years later to add a comment, but realized that I hadn't posted the hyperlink for that website I quoted.

      That quote is found on a page of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture presents African American Migration Experience (AAME)

      Here's the hyperlink for the home page of tha website:;jsessionid=f8303238981370138501546?bhcp=1

  4. After re-reading this post, I want to add these comments:

    The term "negro" with a lower case "n" is sometimes used by African Americans in writing & in speech as a pejorative. A "negro" (lower case) is a male or female who puts his or her interests ahead of other members of his racial group. He is an "Uncle Tom" (This pejorative is sometimes shortened to "Tom"). She is an "Aunt Jemima" (although the term "Aunt Jemima" is much less often used that "Uncle Tom", and I've seen instances in writing where females are called "toms").

    I do not refer to myself or anyone else of any race or ethnicity as what is now called "the n word". I don't use that word and don't fully spell it out. I don't accept the notion of re-claiming that word and REALLY don't like it when anyone regardless of his or her race/ethnicity uses it.

    By the way, I recognize that there are multiple Black ethnicities. For instance, there are numerous ethnic groups in Africa (I prefer the term "ethnic groups" to tribes. How often do you see or hear "tribe" used in reference to White Europeans? Why is that term only used for People of Color?)

    I also recognize that there are many different types of African Americans such as African Americans who are of Gullah descent, or specific Native American descent, or specific Caribbean descent, or a person who is of mixed Black/ other race or ethnicity (which most African Americans refer to as "mixed). In the USA, "mixed" people who have some Black ancestry are considered by most Black Americans to be Black.

    In addition, I consider that other African American or other Black ethnic groups are those African Americans or other Black people who are Afro-European because they were born in Europe, or specific South American descent etc.
    I'm aware that Australian indigenous people and
    some people from Melanesia consider themselves to be Black and therefore I consider them Black too.

    Actually, my position is that anyone who considers themselves to be Black, and anyone who considers himself to be African American regardless of their skin color, hair type and other physical features is Black.

    Also, with regard to people who are of mixed racial ancestry (particularly persons who are of first generation mixed racial ancestry), it seems to me that that person should be able to accepted by other persons as a member of both races/ancestry. But given the still widespread existence of institutional racism and the widespread existence of personal racism, it's likely that if that person "looks Black", he or she won't be fully accepted as a member of a non-Black race or ethncity.

  5. Here's one way to understand the difference between "Black" ("black") and "African American":

    Think about the relationship between males and people. All males are people but all people aren't males.

    In the same way, according to the definition of that term that people in the United States use, all African Americans are Black, but all Black people aren't African Americans.

    In other words, "African American" is a sub-set of "Black". There are far more Black people in the world than there are African Americans.

    For the most part, "Black" refers to people with some Black African descent, although people can debate what "Black African descent" means. I wrote "for the most part" because there are Black people in the world-in Australia, in India, in Melanesia etc- who aren't of Black African descent...but, if you go back far enough, everybody is of Black African descent.

    For various reasons, some African Americans (Black Americans) don't like the referent "Black". However, I consider "Black" (spelled with either a capital "B" or a lower case "b") to be an informal referent for the population of people who up to the mid 1960s were referred to as "Negroes" (always spelled with a capital "N"). And I consider "African American" (always spelled with capital "A"s) to be the formal referent for that population.

  6. “Black folks noticed that the beginning word for all other hyphenated population names in the USA referred to a geographical place-a homeland.”

    Agreed. “African American” is a more meaningful and dignified term that gives a geographical reference, just like other hyphenated population names.

    1. My apologies, newyorkman.

      I'm just reading your comment almost three years later.


  7. Here are two comments about the racial referent "Black"
    From Black Kos Week In Review*

    webranding Jul 01 · 04:15:02 PM
    "Can I call a person black? Or say black?"

    44BlueLeft - webranding Jul 01 · 06:30:34 PM
    "Black (preferably capital b) and/or African American are interchangeable and acceptable..."

    I'd add to that response that "Black" is a more inclusive referent than "African American": While all African Americans are Black, all Black people aren't African American.

    For instance, some Black people in the USA are from South America, or the Caribbean, or Europe, or Africa, or Asia, or the Middle East. Also, there are Black people in those other continents and nations who have no roots in the USA, and/or aren't living in the USA.

    As to whether a Black person who is from outside the USA but now lives in the USA wants to consider himself or herself "African American", I think that is up to him or her.

    *Regarding "Black Kost", I'm not a member of dailykos and have never been a member of that forum. However, from regularly reading Black Kos, my understanding is that it is one of a number of sub-sets of the dailykos internet forum. The purpose of Black Kos (as I understand it) is to facilitate sharing and discussing Black issues/concerns. Although most of the persons who belong to that Black Kos group are Black, I've read that people of any race/ethnicity can be a member of that sub-group and and/or participate in those discussions.

    Articles are posted under the Black Kos byline twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays.