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.]
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, http://afroeurope.blogspot.com/2012/06/video-hip-hop-on-trial-hip-hop-doesnt.html ; 7/5/2012
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