“What’s the difference between Black and African-American?” This question first popped into my head in my first semester of community college. I was enrolled in a class called “Current Issues in America,” where we had the liberty to speak our minds. One of my peers, whose views weren’t always popular amongst our class, felt the need to get something off her chest. The topic of the class discussion was race, and she had some concerns to bring to light.
“I don’t like being called African-American,” she said. As she was black, this raised some eyebrows. “If I have no African descent, then why call me African-American?” My classmate explained that her ancestry traced back to Haiti and that she was offended when people referred to her as African-American. It left me thinking, is this a common feeling throughout the community as a whole?
There are two questions that must be addressed before we can come to a conclusion. The first is, didn’t all black people originate from Africa? The second is, if there is a difference between the two, is it offensive to use the two terms interchangeably?
Let’s dive into the origins of black people. Before the Atlantic Slave Trade, in which black people were taken from Africa and traded throughout the Americas, there were no blacks in either continent. They were enslaved and kept in chains for 246 years, before gaining their freedom through the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. After, they were subjected to systemic oppression that is still felt today.
For centuries, the term “Negro” was widely used to describe a black citizen until the peak of the Civil Rights movement, when the term “Black American” came into use. According to DifferenceBetween.com, “The term ‘Black American’ is generally used for people who have slave ancestors. These people may not have any close association with Africa or with recent immigrants.” The website also says that the terms also “refers to those who have emigrated from the Caribbean.” On the other hand, the website defines the term “African-American” as “a term that is widely used to describe all people with an African ancestry. In using ‘African American’ there is no distinction between immigrants from Ghana or Haiti or the other Caribbean islands.”
One of the most popular terms that came from the Civil Rights movement was “Black Power.” Thanks to Stokely Carmichael and Willie Ricks, the term became a symbol of hope and strength for the community at large. Black became the umbrella term for everyone in the community, whether you were directly from Africa, Haiti, Jamaica, or South America.
In an article written about Barack Obama’s first Presidential campaign in 2008, Gary Younge sought to uncover if black people felt Obama was “black enough” to effectively represent Blacks in the White House. He explained the difference but while explaining he said something that stuck with me because of its importance. Younge said, “All African-Americans are black, but not all black Americans are African Americans.”
In “Black American or African American?” Melody McCloud refers to herself as a Black American, while referring to Barack Obama as an African American. McCloud states that, for her, it’s not right to use these terms synonymously. “If you were born in New York, fine; but New York is in America, not Nigeria or Nairobi. If you were born in Kentucky, that’s not Kenya, and Boston isn’t in Botswana,” she says. Melody states that Barack Obama is certainly African-American because “he is a first-line descendant of an African father and an American mother.”
She doesn’t mean that she doesn’t claim African descent. She says that she’s an American. “Did my ancient African ancestors come to America by force over 400 years ago?” she asks. “Absolutely,” she proclaims, “And it was an atrocious crime of mammoth proportions. But since then, all of my ancestors were born on American soil. They worked this soil. Their blood, sweat, and tears watered this soil, and I was born on this soil.” She states, “I’m an American. A Black American. Period.”
The same sense of Black pride can be felt on our own campus. Fordham Lincoln Center’s Black Student Alliance is an incredible group of people with informed opinions on this subject. Most spoke of personal experiences and feelings that helped me see things from a different perspective. One student said she felt that using African-American synonymously with Black is presumptuous. When she said this, the whole room concurred.
When someone calls a person African-American, they assume that person has African lineage. Black, with a capital B, doesn’t mean that those in the community wish to disconnect themselves from their past. They embrace it, but they want to be able to embrace the culture of their immediate ancestors. To borrow the perspective of the extraordinary Maya Angelou, “For Africa to me…is more than a glamorous fact. It is a historical truth. No man can know where he is going unless he knows exactly where he has been and exactly how he arrived at his present place.”