All-American Name Game
I don't go by African-American. I never did. I know that when people use that term I'm generally what they mean, but there are some problematic elements of that construction. Black (capital B) works sufficiently for me. A good discussion of the debate over the term African-American can be seen here. (Shout to Booker Rising). For now, though, I'm less concerned with the technical aspects than with the cultural elements. I was one class short of being an Af-Am studies minor. What ot me was a class that was cross-listed between Af-Am and English. Since I was an English major, they just tacked it on there. Anyway, that's just to say that I'm not freestyling off the top of my head without any of the philosophical underpinnings of the discussion. I know the literature on this, and I know, or am at least very familiar with the elements of the argument from both sides. Now. It's obvious that Black people have ancestry that connects us to Africa. Anybody who says otherwise is just talking nonsense. I'm not Jesse Peterson, disavowing all connection to Africa, or acting like there's some shame in it, but I'm not also with the romanticization of the continent. Africa is neither the origin of all things evil, nor is it the land of everlasting goodness. Or maybe it is, but if it's one then it's necessarily the other. Either way, most so-called African-Americans, the ones Stanley Crouch stubbornly refers to as Negroes, specifically meaning American-born Black folk, for the most part, have no tangible connection to Africa; haven't been there and ain't necessarily lookin' to go. Now, I will say that some fairly interesting comparisons have been made between elements of traditional African culture and Black American activity. Much is made of the similarity between people pouring out liquor in the memory of friends and relatives in the U.S. and the libations for the dead done in certain African cultures and religions. I don't question the connection; people do what the people around them do and have done. That doesn't make us African, though. That's like saying that a person is African because they tote yams or goobers. Sure, there are some things that have been passed down from generation to generation, whether behavioral or linguistic. The fact that I can't trace my lineage back to Africa doesn't negate that. I reject the term African-American because I am literally American. I used to have a strong opinion on the melting pot vs. salad metaphor. Some people see America as something that transmogrifies all who enter into a new amalgam, shile others see America as a place where diversity is the very trait that gives it strength and vitality. I used to be deep on the salad side. Then I realized that some of the same folks who argue for plurality within American culture try to make a hegemony within Black culture. Not just American Black culture, though, African culture as well. To pick on a commonly used example, African people don't know what Kwanzaa is. That's something Ron Karenga smelted together. And I'm not even debating whether Kwanzaa is legitimate or whether it should be celebrated, I'm just saying that it's an attempt to forge some type of pan-African identity within American Black folk. I think it's false. At this point, I probably believe more in the salad than the melting pot, although I definitely think there is a kind of American "dressing" that we're all slathered in. Again, I've never been out of the country myself, but from what I've heard, even Black Americans are identified as American first. And even if other people didn't see us that way, Jesse Peterson would have to agree with Ice Cube when Cube rapped, "And motherfuckers that say they too Black/ put 'em overseas, they'll be beggin' to come back." It's easy to be non-American when you're here. It's easy to recognize all the flaws and imperfections of our governmental system and to see the gross inequities in wealth and healthcare and to think that something must be amiss. But I'd be willing to bet that any person who thinks their lifestyle in the projects in the pits would be ready to walk back after living in Bangladesh poverty for a few months. I could be wrong, but I don't think so. Of course, America has historically not included Black folks, and that certainly plays a role in the reticence many of us have in designating ourselves as full Americans. Again, to ignore the historical reality is just plain foolish. Even now, it's likely that if you were to ask most people to describe an average American, their description wouldn't be Black. Jeremy deals with this in his post on normative whiteness. So why should we identify ourselves as Americans, since "they" don't? Because it's ours. Like James Brown sang, "we've used our sweat and blood/ to put out every fire and block up every flood." The title "American" is not "theirs" to give or withdraw. The constitution may not have been written with me in mind, but it applies to me now, just like years ago I couldn't have flown first class, but I can fly first class now. And I take every benefit and perk that I'm supposed to get. Our forebears paid with their lives for us to be Americans. I, for one, ain't tryin' to give up what they bought.