What’s in a Name?

Aisha Harris is not “African American.” She is neither “black” nor “American.” Instead, Harris insists that she is an amalgamation of the latter two terms. “Who I am,” she declares in Slate, “is a black American,” a young woman with “American parents, grandparents and great-grandparents” who happens to be “partially African, genetically speaking.”

Harris explains that her introduction to ideas about ethnic and racial identity came as an adolescent. She remembers that her father introduced his children to “African-themed cultural artifacts”—a nebulous category encompassing everything from Roots to Kwanzaa—in an effort to instill “in us not just a sense of pride as black Americans, but as Americans of African descent.” These lessons, Harris writes, led her to identify as “black and African-American interchangeably.”

Her embrace of “African American” would, however, prove ephemeral. In the sixth-grade, she struggled to complete an assignment involving the creation of a family crest. More specifically, Harris found ancestral Africa inaccessible and her identifiable southern and mid-Atlantic roots insufficient, at least when compared to the Irish, Italian, and Greek heritage claimed by her classmates.

Interactions with African immigrants and their children in subsequent years only reinforced these feelings of unease and alienation. Harris writes that her “in-depth encounters with first-and second-generation Americans who had immediate family from African countries made me question my adherence to the label of African-American.” In a curious conflation of country and continent, she explains the sobering conclusions reached as a result of these experiences. To Harris, Ghanaian-Americans, Nigerian-Americans, and other “people with such explicit connections to their relatives’ home countries accurately embody the term [African American].” She, conversely, does not.

Indeed, she feels that she cannot. The insurmountable separation between Harris and Africa—and, in her opinion, the attendant distinction between “black American” and “African American”—became clear during a recent trip to Kenya. When Kenyans asked her what country she and her parents are from, Harris found it difficult to explain that she was born in the United States. Even after realizing that her new acquaintances were inquiring about her ancestry Harris did not reveal that she can trace her roots back to modern-day Nigeria. Her failure to do so may have been a result of culture shock—in explaining why she felt like any other tourist “exploring an entirely new place for the first time,” Harris notes that “livestock roam the streets even in urban areas of Kenya.”

This and other “significant cultural gaps” appear to have produced an acute case of amnesia in Harris. Unlike Saidiya Hartman and other diasporan blacks who have written about their experiences in Africa, Harris does not simply deny her ability to go “home.”[1] Instead, she largely disregards the connection between Africa and the African Diaspora. In particular, Harris dismisses Kenyans who ask “what non-American country” her family is from, accusing them of thinking that “having black skin also means being African.” She may be correct. But it seems more likely that they are rational beings who accurately equate black skin with modern African ancestry even if they overestimate its immediacy.

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Harris is certainly not alone in her pursuit of a suitable name to describe her racial and ethnic identity. Moreover, her preference for “black American” is reasonable. Nonetheless, her wholesale rejection of “African American”—born out of a belief that “every individual . . . should be able to identify as they see fit”—obscures the complexity and the political saliency that black people in the United States have assigned to names that apply invariably to the group, not just the individual.

Nearly one century ago, W.E.B. Du Bois participated in a similar debate about the collective name by which the black community would be known. At the time, the term “Negro” had firmly supplanted “Afro-American” in popularity. Still, some criticism of this linguistic shift persisted. In a letter to Du Bois, high school sophomore Roland Barton asked the editor of The Crisis why a magazine devoted to “equality for all Americans” decided to “designate, and segregate us as “Negroes,” and not as Americans.” “Negro,” Barton asserted,” was no better than “nigger;” a “white man’s word” designed “to make us feel inferior.”[2]

Du Bois disagreed. In a reply printed in The Crisis, the esteemed race leader informed Barton that “”Negro” . . . is much better and more logical than “African” or “colored” or any of the various circumlocutions.” Moreover, he rejected the suggestion that we “slip out of the whole thing by calling ourselves “Americans.”” How could we, Du Bois reasoned, when black people in the United States still could not exercise some of the fundamental rights and privileges of U.S. citizenship? How could we, he implored, when to abandon “the word that means Us” would require a denial of “our most precious heritage?”[3]

In fact, Du Bois advised Barton that he was focused too much on etymology. “If men despise Negroes,” he argued, “they will not despise them less if Negroes are called “colored” or “Afro-Americans.”” In other words, black people in the United States needed to focus more on attaining self-respect and communal pride and less on group naming practices. “It is not the name,” Du Bois concluded. It is “the Thing that counts.”[4]

Du Bois was a bit disingenuous—his campaign to make the use of “Negro” universal shows that he certainly cared about names—but his underlying point is clear.[5] For the civil rights activist, naming practices were, first and foremost, inseparable from black cultural politics. For this reason, Du Bois articulated the view that issues of racial pride and progress were more important considerations for selecting a name than historical accuracy and geographic precision. These beliefs and his consistent use of the word “we” reveal Du Bois’s broader understanding that ethnic and racial identifiers were much more than a matter of personal preference.

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To be fair, Harris does allude to the political saliency of ethnic and racial group naming practices. But her unclear suggestion that her “preference for being called a black American . . . acknowledges the similarities that do extend to all black people” raises more questions than answers. Is it just the descendants of U.S.-born slaves who can lay claim to the name “black American?” Is “African American” a term of Pan-African unity that empowers Kenyan-American or Ghanaian-American communities? Or does it also discount cultural and geographic differences that they, too, may feel? And what about Haitian-Americans? In what ways do we need to consider them and other diasporan blacks living in the United States when considering the efficacy of “black American,” “African American,” or “black?”

I do not have an immediate answer to these questions and I do not fault Harris for not raising them in a piece that could only cover so much. Still, I believe it is critical to consider the wide-ranging implications of the names by which we—black residents and citizens of the United States—are called. Du Bois and his contemporaries certainly lived in a different and much more challenging political and social climate than their ancestors. But the insistence that names, pride, and racial progress were intertwined remains relevant today. Even in 2014, black does not simply mean black, a name is much more than a matter of personal choice. And as long as race matters in our everyday lives, so will the words by which we are called.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Compelling reflections on the meaning of Diaspora include Caryl Phillips’s The Atlantic Sound (New York: Knopf, 2000) as well as Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007).

[2] The Crisis, March 28, 96-97.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Leon Litwack places Du Bois’s efforts to get “Negro” capitalized by the white press within the context of Jim Crow-era cultural politics in Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (New York: Knopf, 1998).

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