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AFRO-AMERICAN LIKE ME : Shades of Gray and Political Correctness in the Black Community

September 05, 1993|Wanda Coleman

B lack was a fightin' word in my South-Central school days. By the late '60s, the militant outcry was "There's no such country as colored!" And black had become beautiful. This upsurge in racial pride seemed new, but it was only another phase in a war for recognition hard-fought since the first American slave was dragged ashore.

Unlike other groups, what we blacks call ourselves has resulted in a centuries-long identity crisis. Scholar W.E.B. DuBois, instrumental in the Niagara Movement, later the NAACP, reclaimed ethnic self-esteem via Ethiopia, a reference so popular by the '30s that comedian W.C. Fields used it as a derogatory euphemism: "Ethiopian in the fuel supplies" (N-word in the woodpile). Nevertheless, evoking Mama Afrika--Egypt, Nubia, even the Belgian Congo--elevated our race far above Negro, capitalized or not, the Spanish word for black.

By the '70s, Afro-American was the widely accepted label because it locked our landless people to a land mass. But by the end of the '80s, Jesse Jackson and other black leaders proclaimed African-American the preferred term for pragmatic political reasons. Yet this rechristening further complicated the sticky discourse it was meant to end. Black Studies programs that initially scrambled to rename themselves Afro-American now grapple with African-American.

As a writer, I happen to favor the word Black because it's short. But nearly all American publications refuse to capitalize (or dignify) the word, citing matters of style. In fact, I would like the option of capitalizing any color--white, red, yellow, brown, purple--when referring to a people. That would allow me to graphically pay my respects while still making my multihued point. But if I want a capitalized term to refer to my people, I'm forced to use African-American because the establishment has decreed Afro-American out of vogue.

Overall, the term African-American dissatisfies me because it whitewashes my history and equates it with that of newly arrived immigrants, muting present-day residuals of slavery and its inequities.

To avoid confusion, I propose that Afro-American be re-adopted to distinguish American Blacks-of-Slave-Origin from black immigrants from Africa and that the term African-American be used only to refer to the latter. Substitution of one for the other blurs strong cultural differences. Africans naturalized as U.S. citizens should also have the options of self-identity, as should black Latinos and black Asians.

A nation of immigrants is my other PC peeve. It sounds politically correct but denies the uniqueness of the black experience. And its pain. Granted there are similarities, but my forebears had no choice in coming to America. Tracing ancestors back to "The Continent" was a fad following Alex Haley's "Roots," but for most blacks, the trail stops where the Atlantic starts. Unlike some folk, I'm not ashamed of being descended from slaves. Regardless of who sold whom as "black gold," my great-great-granddad did not flee a war-torn country, defect from an oppressive government or cross the border to seek work. He was not an indentured servant or flimflammed into building the railroads. A Mississippi slave, he purchased his freedom with his sweat and intellect, then headed northwest.

Emphasis on my slave origin assumes the African connection, but I do not wish to be identified as an African or Oglala Sioux or Johnny Reb--other parts of my lineage. Thus I also reject New African , a new label for the '90s. If I must suffer categorization, I prefer to do it as an Afro-American.

"I don't understand you blacks in America," frowned the South African, a recent apartheid escapee. "You're too preoccupied with proving yourselves human."

"The U.S. Constitution excluded us as chattel," I said by rote. "That's why there's this never-ending debate about what we call ourselves."

"Aaahhh!" he smiled and nodded.

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