The labels used to describe Americans of African descent mark the movement of a people from the slave house to the White House. Today, many are holding on to a name from the past: "black."
For this group — some descended from U.S. slaves, some immigrants with a separate history — "African-American" is not the sign of progress hailed when the term was popularized in the late 1980s. Instead, it's a misleading connection to a distant culture.
The debate has waxed and waned since African-American went mainstream, and gained new significance after the son of a black Kenyan and a white American moved into the White House. President Barack Obama's identity has been contested from all sides, renewing questions that have followed millions of darker Americans:
What are you? Where are you from? And how do you fit into this country?
"I prefer to be called black," said Shawn Smith, an accountant from Houston. "How I really feel is, I'm American."
"I don't like African-American. It denotes something else to me than who I am," said Smith, whose parents are from Mississippi and North Carolina. "I can't recall any of them telling me anything about Africa. They told me a whole lot about where they grew up in Macomb County and Shelby, N.C."
Gibre George, an entrepreneur from Miami, started a Facebook page called "Don't Call Me African-American" on a whim. It now has about 300 "likes."
"We respect our African heritage, but that term is not really us," George said. "We're several generations down the line. If anyone were to ship us back to Africa, we'd be like fish out of water."
"It just doesn't sit well with a younger generation of black people," continued George, who is 38. "Africa was a long time ago. Are we always going to be tethered to Africa? Spiritually I'm American. When the war starts, I'm fighting for America."
Joan Morgan, a writer born in Jamaica who moved to New York City as a girl, remembers the first time she publicly corrected someone about the term: at a book signing, when she was introduced as African-American and her family members in the front rows were appalled and hurt.
"That act of calling me African-American completely erased their history and the sacrifice and contributions it took to make me an author," said Morgan, a longtime U.S. citizen who calls herself Black-Caribbean American. (Some insist Black should be capitalized.)
She said people struggle with the fact that black people have multiple ethnicities because it challenges America's original black-white classifications. In her view, forcing everyone into a name meant for descendants of American slaves distorts the nature of the contributions of immigrants like her black countrymen Marcus Garvey and Claude McKay.
Morgan acknowledges that her homeland of Jamaica is populated by the descendants of African slaves. "But I am not African, and Africans are not African-American," she said.
In Latin, a forerunner of the English language, the color black is "niger." In 1619, the first African captives in America were described as "negars," which became the epithet still used by some today.
The Spanish word "negro" means black. That was the label applied by white Americans for centuries.
The word black also was given many pejorative connotations — a black mood, a blackened reputation, a black heart. "Colored" seemed better, until the civil rights movement insisted on Negro, with a capital N.
Then, in the 1960s, "black" came back — as an expression of pride, a strategy to defy oppression.
"Every time black had been mentioned since slavery, it was bad," says Mary Frances Berry, a University of Pennsylvania history professor and former chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Reclaiming the word "was a grass-roots move, and it was oppositional. It was like, `In your face.'"
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