Saturday, March 10, 2018

Americans, Plain and Simple

How about doing away with the term "African-American"?

It has taken me a while to realize that African Americans are far, far more American than I am. I am a naturalized citizen and immigrant. Yet the Protestant, white, suburban Boy-Scout culture fit like a glove- I was assimilated into 60's-70's America with plenty of personal and family issues, but no larger political or cultural issues.

How different that is from the black experience, where whole political parties remain dedicated to keeping black Americans down! A small part of that social antagonism and "othering" is furthered by the distinct names that have been applied to the black community. While the term "African American" is about as neutral as can be, in strict analogy to the many other ethnic terms like Irish-American, Jewish-American, German-American, Chinese-American, etc., there have in practice been some distinctions.

First, "Irish-American" is not frequently used. Most ethnic groups, especially those of such long vintage, have simply melted in to the pot of generic Americans- have assimilated or had America assimilate to them. So the continued intensive use of the term "African American" does not flow from a lack of assimilation, at least not from an African originating culture, but something quite different. Second, why is "African" lumped together so promiscuously, as if a continent as large as three Europes contained only one culture? "Latino" suffers from the same syndrome, hiding vast differences and diversity for the convenience of the dominant culture. It is a natural problem with naming and grouping of any kind, but is another sign that the "African" in "African American" doesn't really refer to Africa.

What all this does signify is continued segregation in all sorts of dimensions- social, physical, economic- based on a long cultural history of fear, disgust, hate, and social and economic oppression/powerlessness. Pride in an African heritage is admirable, but that seems so distant as to be mostly contrived; there is very little such heritage afoot in contemporary America, in any way that is distinct to one community, beyond genetics. (Though Wakanda may change all that!) A more accurate designation might be "formerly enslaved Americans", though that hardly trips off the tongue either. There have been many attempts at labels, more or less successful, (Negro, colored, minority, Urban, Afro-American, ghetto, racialized people, diverse, people of color). I would suggest the preferred usage just be "Americans" when and where possible, without further ado or elaboration.

A word-cloud of my own creation, text drawn from Wikipedia and other history sites focusing on the back experience. This  appears to militate against the thesis presented, showing "African" with high usage, and as perhaps the primary locus of identity. But the corpus was a very backward-looking, perhaps not reflective of the current cultural setting.

Obviously, from the very nature of this very article, some term is needed to refer to Americans descended from those were formerly under bondage and even more formerly kidnapped from West Equatorial Africa. "Black" seems to fit that best, if still very uncomfortably. Despite all the etymological / symbological freight, simplification, and label-i-fication, it is simple and widely used. It is also part of a deeply unifying symbology. The Ying/Yang symbol is an example, showing light and dark as part of all things, and all cycles and processes. Ebony, Jet, Black power, Black is beautiful... all have been ways to rectify the dominant-culture valence of this term.