In his article “Black Heritage: A Fight For Identity”, The Stripes’ Kovey Coles outlines a few encounters where people have inquired of his heritage. Most of the encounters that he lists occurred abroad, between him and a nonnative English speaker. However, the article was mainly focused on Mr. Coles’ feeling that because many Blacks in American do not know their true heritage, any inquiry into their ancestry is insensitive.
As a Black person, I agree that it is somewhat insensitive, and I admit that I too have felt a twinge of envy when my lighter complexioned friends are able to claim certain percentages of German, Italian, Swiss, Portuguese, and perhaps even Native American descent. But the fact that he is discomforted by this question suggests that he sees our history as a source of shame, as something that needs to be covered up.
His reluctance to use the “African-American” identifier is one symptom of this, disconnecting American Black people from our origin as displaced Africans who were forcibly stripped of our heritage. He displays further dissociation by voicing a belief that he and all American Blacks are “just black.”
By saying this, he suggests that we are defined completely by our ancestry, and because we are ignorant of our genealogy we are unable to become whole people. He implies that our collective history as slaves, as property, is a basis for disgrace instead of a font of pride. Our lineage survived the atrocities of American slavery. Regardless of whom their ancestors were or what they did, they endured, in spite of countless attempts by slave masters and slave traders to break up the Black family unit. We exist as a people still, despite the horrors that we have borne, and that should be enough of an answer for anyone who asks, “Where are you from?”
My answer to this question usually follows the lines of:
Well, my parents are from New York, but my dad’s parents are from Trinidad and Tobago. My mom’s dad is from St. Kitts, but my mom’s mother is from North Carolina.
I find that this usually is a satisfactory answer for most petitioners.
Perhaps because I have yet to have an experience answering this question abroad, or perhaps because I can point to actual West Indian heritage, my opinion of this inquiry is less vitriolic than his. Nevertheless, the fact remains that I know about the same amount as Mr. Coles as to where my ancestors originate. Like him, I have no direct ties to Africa, but that does not prevent me from celebrating African culture as well as the culture of Black Americans. I have never been to Africa, and I imagine that if I were to go, it would be something less than the cathartic, redefining experience that Barack Obama related in his memoir Dreams From My Father.
However, just because I cannot point directly to a certain village or town and say, “My people are from here,” that is no reason for me to feel disconnected from them. I can still feel a broad connection with those people who look like me. To reject the label of “African American” on the basis that we have no close connection with Africa or because we cannot truly claim Africa is something that weakens us as a people.
But then the label of “African American” is problematic as well. It alludes to similar labels of Mexican-American, of Irish-American, of Japanese-American. By referring to someone as an “African-American,” the person is equated to those people whose ancestors have the national origin specified in the first part of the phrase. “African” is not a national origin. If we wish to use a term to refer to all members of the African Diaspora, I think “Black” does a better job of filling that role than “African American,” in general.
But in reference to Black Americans, since most of us have had the knowledge of our national origin stripped from us, since many of us identify most closely with the United States as a country of origin, I believe that we have the right to describe ourselves as “African American” or “Black” as we wish. If a Black person is asked where she is from, and the petitioner doesn’t accept either of these labels as an answer, then the issue lies with the petitioner instead of the petitioned. African-American may not be a national origin, but given the history of Black Americans, to refuse to accept this answer is insensitive, offensive, and ignorant.
There will always be some vulnerability when Black Americans are asked where they are from. I can’t pretend, and I don’t expect, that someday it will be easier to answer that question. But we can’t refuse to answer it, and we can’t give every person who asks the question a brief history of Black people in America. Striking a balance between these two, by seeing “African American” as an acceptable, but incomplete, response to a query for the story of our national origin is the best that we can do for the foreseeable future.