Sunday, 12 February 2012

Reflecting On African-Americans Grappling With the Black Or African-American Issue

Although the term 'African-American' gained currency in the late 1980s, it has not stopped the issue of whether to call themselves black of African-American, rearing its head ever since.

You may recall in 1998, the actress and comedienne Whoopi Goldberg, declared: "I'm not an African".  For those that know what Ms Golberg (born Caryn Elaine Johnson) looks like, here's a photo to jog your memory.

In 2007 Gallup published its research carried between 1991 to 2007 in which although there was a consistent preference for African-American, the overwhelming majority had no preference for African-American or black.

A Miami-based African-American called Gibre George is one of those not comfortable with the term African-American. He has a Facebook page called Don't Call Me African-American. "If you have to call me African, then you have to call everyone African," states George. In other words, either you describe us all as African, being that is the origin of the human race, or else call be American. One wonders how he describes his ethnicity/race on the American census form, as American is not one of the options.

He one of his earliest posts, George had this to say: "It is obvious that the inspiration for the classification of African American has nothing to do with those born of African descent. It is a radical group of Black Americans who hold to the anti-American views of those shared by Jeremiah Wright, Professor Gates, Jesse Jackson, President Obama and many others who came out of the radical Civil Rights Movement. Because of these things, I now part ways with the classification of African American because I hold no allegiance to Africa. I embrace the American qualities of freedom to worship, freedom to have my own opinion, freedom to express my views, freedom to achieve whatever it is God has created me to achieve. I hope that I will find others like me who are willing to break ties with the things that divide us, and embrace the timeless principles that have made this country the greatest nation on earth. That is why, when the next U.S. Census occurs, I will be making a new category just for me, the classification of being an American."

George and his like-minded folks were featured in an article published in February 2012 by Associated Press race and ethnicity specialist writer Jesse Washington. the article entitled 'Some blacks insist: 'I'm not African-American'' was picked up by The Guardian. You are welcome to read the whole piece. However, I'll pick up on a few points worth making here. 

"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." 

When I first read that paragraph, I wondered whether good ole Mr Smith would have been comfortable if his family had regaled him with stories of how they'd ended up in the US from Africa. It seemed to me like a lame excuse to disassociate one's self from any African connection.

George is quoted in the article saying: "We respect our African heritage, but that term is not really us ... We're several generations down the line. If anyone were to ship us back to Africa, we'd be like fish out of water."

I recognise that African-Americans, and for that matter any African who's lived in the diaspora, would have a different lifestyle and hence may not easily fit into life in Africa. That's a different argument as to whether they are not Africans, simply because they've lived outside Africa for generations.

Malcolm X had this response to the latter issue: "Just because a cat has kittens in the oven, that doesn't make them biscuits." I would develop it further by offering this argument: A lion that's been kept in a zoo may be pampered and not have the skills to fend for itself in the wild, but does not stop it from being recognised as a lion.  

Jesse Jackson had this to say in the early days of propounding the African-American term: "Every ethnic group in this country has a reference to some land base, some historical, cultural base." It sound pretty much like the quote by the late historian John Henrik Clarke, who said: "A more proper word for our people, African, relates us to land, history and culture."

Jackson has made several visits to Britain, often under the auspices of OBV ( Operation Black Vote), for whom the term "black" is useful politically, and dare I say, financially. OBV literature talks in terms of black and Asian, and I think this may have made the reverend and veteran civil right activist's position on  supporting African-British, rather than black, on this side of the pond a bit shaky.

Long before TAOBQ was conceived, I had written to Jackson to get his take on supporting the African/African-British terminology, simply because he's recognised as the one that popularised African-American, and sadly, the Brits often take their lead from the Americans, rather than those at home. I did not get an answer. However in August 2007, when I heard he'd be visiting Stonebridge in north-west London, and more importantly Life FM, the local radio station I used to present on at that time, I made sure I was there to meet him. I re-printed my unanswered letter and added a copy of a document with a local flavour - the Brent Black Music History Project book and DVD I produced for our Brent-based voluntary organisation BTWSC.

On that fateful day, I'm not sure whether he shook our hands, but he certainly gave those of us standing in line as he walked out of the station's corridor. I did try to hand him my package, but that didn't go down well. So I gave it to the then local MP, and official host of that leg of the visit, Dawn Butler. Whether it got to him, or even made it unto the Virgin Atlantic-sponsored Equanomics tour bus, I don't know.

Luckily in December 2011, a call went out about a hastily arranged press release with Jackson at the OBV HQ. This time round, not only was I able to put into his hands a copy of our latest book, 'African Voices: Quotations By People Of African Descent', the reverend was kind enough to actually pose with the book, although there was no time to capture it as properly as I'd have liked on my video camera.

Click to see very short video clip of Rev Jesse Jackson posing with 

But perhaps even better was the fact that I managed to join Jackson and his entourage on the tube journey to St Paul's, where he was heading to lend support and address the Occupy London protesters encamped in front of St Paul's Cathedral.  On the way from the tube station to the Cathedral, I tried to get Jackson's take on the African Or Black Question filming guerilla style.

Perhaps it's because of his long-standing and strong relationship with OBV and its related organisations, or maybe because he was distracted, the man recognised as having popularised the African-American terminology, was not unequivocal in supporting the African-British terminology within the British "context". Instead, he suggested one recognised the "real value" provided by coalitions of "blacks, Asians, Caribbeans..."

I'm convinced this is not Jackson's definitive position on the matter. Perhaps one day, when he's not caught on the hop, and in more relaxed circumstances, we'll get a "proper" answer.

Going back one more time to Washington's piece, he highlights the views of Tomi Obaro, a young woman brought from London by Nigerian parents, and who's now a US citizen. African-American "sort of screams this political correctness" opines Obaro. She and her black friends rarely use it to refer to themselves, except when they're speaking in "proper company" - whatever that means.

This weekend, just before I got round to write this piece, I got a phone call from my friend Kienda (who's featured in 'The African Or Black Question' documentary), not only to inform me of the sad news of the passing of Whitney Houston (RIP), but also that he had come by BlackPlanet alert on an article and video dealing the Are You Black Or African-American? issue. The BBC World Service's World Have Your Say programme also recently dealt with the same issue - click to hear it.

Guess this issue is something that's going to run and run. But as per our first post-event press release, we've moved on from that discussion. TAOBQ's next phase is focused on dealing with what it means to be a global African.


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