Sunday, November 9, 2008


Why the term “African-American”?
What about “Black-American”?
Why any sort of “ – American”? aren’t we all American?
Don’t these hyphenated names just create and maintain division, contrary to the idea of “one” America?

This one is fairly easy, but let me fully explain it. Bear with me.

As early as the 1600’s, black people were being born in America. This began a new generation of black people who had never touched foot on the continent of Africa. These black people and their descendants were no longer African, so what were they?


They were not English, Spanish, Dutch, or at the time even American. There was no America as we know it. From their beginning on this continent they were denied any identity, or rather ethnicity, aside from their demeaned status. Legally no more English or Dutch than a goat would be.

Now of course a lot has happened since then.

The Revolution and subsequent constitution began the foundation of what the mainstream considers “American”. Black people were there, this new culture and identity had a formative affect on them as well, after all, they were now owned by Americans.

In 1808, two hundred years ago, the importation of slaves was outlawed. There were no longer new Africans being brought to this continent, but the ones already here, were still not Americans. In 1857, just in case anyone got any ideas, the Supreme Court reminded us all that black people would never be citizens (Dredd Scott Decision).

Then America had a big war over slavery. America didn’t want slavery, and those who did, tried not to be Americans anymore. This was a big deal, there were a lot of black people, mostly in the south, and they represented nearly all the money, either as property or as means of production, in half the United States.
America won the war and even passed the 13th Amendment in 1865 to free the slaves. The vanquished slave culture did not give in so easily and the 14th Amendment was passed shortly thereafter (1868), making these newly free black people, nearly all born on the continent, Americans!

Now these newly christened Americans got up to speed exercising their new rights and participated in the workings of this country. They were elected Mayors, owned businesses, and even sat in the Senate and Congress. Many white Americans were not happy with this and a systematic and violent campaign was launched to relegate these “citizens” to a non-participatory status. These black Americans did as any citizen would and plead in the courts for protection of their rights. The courts said “no”.

White Americans, thanks in large part to their civil war training, were quite good at using violence, resulting in those black politicians and business’s disappearing in less than a decade. The black Americans persisted in asking the courts and the government for help.
That government consistently said no building up to one great climactic ruling in 1896. This is when the Supreme Court, or “America”, said black people are American but must stay separate from all the other Americans. It legitimized the idea that White Americans make the rules and Black Americans must follow them. To emphasize the point in 1908 the Supreme Court disallowed a college in Kentucky from admitting a black student… even though Berea College, a private school, wanted too.

This continued up till, and even past, the signing of the Civil Rights Act in1968.

Let’s give a small recap. The United States at this point has been a country for 192 years. Black people have been deemed legally “American” for 96 of those years.
Of those 96 years black people were only semi-allowed to act as citizens for 28 years (between 14th Amendment and Plessy v Ferg). I say semi-allowed because all historians agree this was probably THE worst time for a black person to try to participate as a citizen. After those 28 years America settled on a sort of compromise.

Black people were allowed to be Americans as long as they kept to themselves, and asked nothing of the government. This was the law for 68 years.

Now ask again why black people may call themselves African-Americans. For 188 years America had been an independent country. Black people were here the entire time but except for a brief reconstruction period, were never allowed to be fully American.

This whole time they continued to grow and develop. They developed religions with accompanying songs and styles of worship. They forged the Underground Railroad with all its legend and drama. They created jazz. They displayed great minds like Douglass, Dubois, Booker T, Langston and Zora. While being held at arms length they stamped their mark on what was considered cool, putting Harlem on the map. They fought as soldiers in wars, despite being denied rights. They formed their own schools, own clubs, own traditions, own foods, own language. All distinctly American, and all distinctly different than white America.

For 188 years they were forcibly separated. For 188 years they grew into their own parallel culture. They became “African-American”. Maybe “Black-American”. It is not my place to give the culture a name, but it exist still the same.

It is now 2008, forty years since the Civil Rights Act. Isn’t it time for things to change?


I have no place to say that someone else should deny what they are and become something new. There is an American black culture. It exists and has for some time. There are those within it who would like to assimilate. There are those who don’t. I personally believe we can, and wish we would, not only peacefully coexist, but easily intermingle. To deny that culture the right to declare itself would be no different than telling a Navajo he can no longer be called that.

Our two Americas can be one. I would say now, more than ever we are “one”. But by being undivided legally or in nationality should not mean giving up one’s personal history. That is and always has been the beauty of America.

Fly your Italian flag. Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Be black and proud. Speak Spanish. Do any of these things and you can, at the same time, be American.


Corbie said...

In my opinion, your best post ever - I loved the insight on both sides of the issue. Bravo!

lyric said...

Thank you for your posts. They are well reasoned and insightful and sometimes even eloquent.

You always give me something to think about.

Lindsey said...

So to play devil's advocate, exactly what does it mean to be American? I understand that we need to emphasize our similarities and celebrate our differences, but what is uniquely "American" that binds all of us together? Is it the opportunity to vote? To perform community service? To draw on state and federal welfare programs? To die for our country? I think what you describe can come to pass, but I think there are those out there who see a completely alien culture that they do not want to understand, and they consider those who don't want to assimilate into their own culture lesser than themselves. Unfortunate, but true. So, how do we go about defining the quintessential American, living up to that standard, and begin celebrating the differences that make us individuals and yet still be part of a community. Yes, I know your blog has previously stated answers to these questions, I just like to hear you equivocate.

SOILA. said...

Post well written.

lyric said...

To me the ideal "American" has always meant being a contributing part of the whole without giving up who you are as an individual. I've been trying to figure out a way to explain it.
Where else in the world can you come from anywhere else in the world and become a full citizen, work your way to where you dreamed you wanted to be?

Of course all of this is pie in the sky and no where close to reality. Mostly because Americans have always been "now that I'm here, nobody else should come unless they are just like me". But still it comes closer to reality here than anywhere else I've seen.

So I've always looked at our institutions and couldn't figure out why they didn't rely on and use the strength of our diversity. When dealing with a troublesome foreign power why haven't they pulled in every recent immigrant from that place and make use of their talents - use their knowledge.

That is the one thing that has made me very, very sad in this recent year. The idea that "if your ideas aren't exactly the same as mine you are my enemy" has been coming from our Government leadership for too long.

Frazier said...

in my line of work i take applications over the phone from people all over the country. at the end of each application i am required to indicate what race the applicant is- the government then monitors this process to be sure minorities arent being discriminiated against. one such applicant responded to the question of what race/ethnicity he belonged to (check all that apply) by stating proudly "I'm as American as it gets."
i hoped he would follow this up with an explanation of such an arrogant response- maybe that he was Native American and as the first to clock in could therefore claim "American as it gets" by way of longevity. or maybe that he truly loved baseball, ate apple pie every day and only dressed in red, white, and blue. perhaps his name was Sam and he had many nephews/nieces. but the sinking feeling in my stomach was confirmed when i repeated the question and he indicated that he was white. i was speechless in the sense that if i had spoken it would have likely just been a stream of profanity. a seemingly small overtly racist statement- but a roaring river begins as a few small drops of water right? so what is the litmus test to deem someone an American anyway?
Egypt wasnt built by card-carrying Egyptians but rather by Israelite slaves. They were then of course led out of Egypt to freedom by Charleton Hesston- i mean Moses (one can assume they didnt want to just take up residence among their former captors and attend BBQ's together, send their kids to little league together, etc. this idea of exodus was briefly entertained by blacks in America- led by Marcus Mosiah Garvey the "Back to Africa" movement was designed to transport those interested back to Mother Africa by ship. it never really took off, but i can understand the desire to be distanced from those who oppressed and are oppressing your people. after all once slavery was abolished most former slaves became sharecroppers which probably smelled and tasted alot like slavery itself. as Dalyn's good friend Bob Marley points out in his song Slave Driver, "Today they say that we are free- Only to be chained in poverty." he goes on to link illiteracy with inability to get needed resources for survival. so i can see how past injustices blended with current slights would make one a bit untrusting- or alot. but i, like Dalyn also feel that there is so much to be gained if we can come together- bringing with us everything that makes us who we are and respecting and appreciating everything others bring to that same table....

Amber said...

Lindsey, the only time I felt I really knew what it was to be American was when I left the country. Isn't America just this big mash up? I had always thought so. I still can't really put my finger on it. Often, it is the arts that help define a culture - the output of their creation - so possibly it's business models as well as art, I don't know.

I believe we must use caution when we think in terms of "nowhere else in the world are we free too..." Those sentiments are often egocentric and false. There are many other countries in the world with high standards of living, and fantastic opportunities for individuals. There are American values that are also values in other countries.

And it gets complicated, too. Although Americans (and *mostly African-Americans) invented Jazz, it flourished in countries like France who often appreciated it more than most Americans.

Ok, now my ideas are getting too gobbled up in my mind for me to continue writing coherently.

Dalyn, once again you write a good post. Have you ever thought of submitting these essays to be published?

B^4 said...

Nice post.

The Irish, Italians, Chinese, Mormons all have well-documented tales of repression in denial of equal opportunity as well. But I have to ask the "so what?" question. A government can't enforce equality, only equal protection under the laws. And that alone have proven VERY difficult.

The moment the government tries to "level the playing field" by un-leveling what are objective criteria it's in over its head.

How anyone can vote for a presidential candidate promising bigger goverment is curious... oh, wait, this year both candidates promised bigger government.

brohammas said...

"So what" is a great question that should be seriously considered. Interesting that we could say govt. cannot level the playing field when in this instance government has historically enforced inequality.

Is it a matter of ability or will?

If the govt. made the field lopsided does it have a responsability to attempt to level it?

It is undeniable that centuries of oppression...note CENTURies plural... has affects even today. Does our society now bear some responsability or is it every man/woman for themselves?

If not the govt. than who? What do you propose?

Kat said...

The moment the government tries to "level the playing field" by un-leveling what are objective criteria it's in over its head.

The "criteria" was never objective in the first place.

Let's rephrase this statement:

The moment the government tries to "level the playing field" by un-leveling what are historically and presently unfair, discriminatory practices against women, blacks, native americans, and poor people in general, it's finally thinking with its head.

brohammas said...

An American is any citizen who is protected by the laws and rights of the constitution


Someone born in this country and is a product of the accompanying culture(s).

Thats about it. An American can be an expat abroad or a new immigrant newly granted citizenship.

A predominant issue is the trap of trying to identify or deem what an American looks or sounds like. Niether of those things have anything to do with constitutional rights... it is ultimately that document and the enforcement/interpretation of it that legally makes up who/what is American.

That aside there are many, MANY, cultural qualities that are if not unique too, originate from, America. ie Hollywood with all its missrepresentations and issues over the years is not only very American, but since the end of WWI has been the largest export of America and consequentialy what IS American.

Siditty said...

Excellent post. I think as time progresses the us versus them mentality has to go away. Us black people of slave descent are displaced, we are distinctly American, we have no other place to call home, and if we do, we don't know exactly where to go, as the continent of Africa is great and immense and I know we are a mixture of many African tribes and cultures whose lineage has been dissolved along the way. White Americans themselves can say the same thing. So many are a mish mash of European countries. We are a nation of immigrants and the only "true" americans are the native americans, and even their culture has changed over time due to European influence. America is literally everything.

Malacyne said...

This was an excellent and thought provoking post. As a black woman, it's a difficult and frustrating task to get others (mostly white people)to understand that black people have a stand-alone/stand-by distinct culture that is every bit apart of the American fabric. Thanks again for this post!

Debo Blue said...

I like this and the previous post too.

Thought provoking. I'm surprised with your topics but I appreciate being a voyeur.