Identity of the African Diaspora: An Evolution of Identifying Terms
The terms used to describe members of the African Diaspora have evolved throughout the last couple of centuries. Identities have taken shape often based on the region in which African descendants currently live. The majority of people, who used to be categorized solely as ‘black’, are in search of a term which identifies them as people who are part of a larger culture and not one that necessarily reflects their race and skin color.
The modern debate over an identifying name took shape during the African slave trade when the first Africans were shipped to the Americas and the Caribbean. The vast majority of Africans wanted to be referred to as African. However the non-African population referred to Africans either as slaves or free. Thus began the reference to people as an adjective and not a noun. Soon Africans and African descendants rejected the term ‘African’ because a negative connotation evolved through the ideas of European descendants. ‘African’ came to symbolize a sub-human identity because Africans were seen as ‘barbaric’ and ‘ape-like’. With the end of the nineteenth century, adjectives started to transform into nouns as identifying terms for African descendants. The term ‘Colored’ became customary when describing all people who were ‘non-white’. However this was replaced with the term ‘Negro’ in the early twentieth century due to the fact that segregation was on a rise and signs above public facilities appeared all over the United States indicating which facility could be used by the ‘Colored’ or by the ‘Whites’. Segregation fueled racism and the terms, ‘Colored’ and ‘Negro’, were perceived as racist by the time of the 1950s and 60s’ Civil Rights Movement. Currently the only acceptable use of the term ‘Colored’ is in the organizational title of the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).
In the 1960s many African Americans were rediscovering their African roots. Hairstyles such as the Afro were becoming popular and slogans such as ‘Black is Beautiful’ were chanted by many. “Say It Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud”, was a song by James Brown which demonstrated the rise of ‘Black Pride’ in the 1960s. With this rise of Black awareness, the distinction on who was ‘Black’ changed. Although ‘Black’ still referred to the color of one’s skin, now it referred only to African descendants and no longer encompassed dark-skinned individuals such as Italians or Mexicans. However, this remained problematic because it referred to anyone originating from African descendants, such as people from the Caribbean, even though these possessed a highly distinct culture. Not all African descendants welcomed the surfacing of the term ‘Black’ because they felt it was similar to the term ‘Negro’ which was now seen as a racist term. But for the most part many accepted the term ‘Black’ and it is still considered acceptable in the USA and other parts of the world today.
The term ‘Afro-American’ developed during the rise of hyphenated terms to describe American minority groups in the 1970s and 1980s. Soon the term evolved into ‘African-American’ and finally into ‘African American’ with it losing the hyphen. The hyphen was removed because many believed that it implied a sub-category. ‘African American’ was adopted quickly by many because many African descendants in the USA did not identify themselves as ‘Black’. However, this terminology does not satisfy everyone because many also believe that there is nothing African about them. It is now widely accepted as the politically correct terminology for Americans of African descendant although it is understood that one term cannot contain all the information required to accurately represent a population of over forty million people.
Today, members of the African Diaspora associate themselves with Africa through the terms with which they identify. Many African descendants believe that the usage of ‘African’ when being identified is a way of circling back to their roots of Africa which carried a stigma for a long time. When polled by the online Village forum associated with the Blacknet website, 40% of African descendants living in Great Britain wished to be called African British while almost half that number, 24%, wished to be called Black. Many believe that the English language has oppressed African people by constantly using adjectives instead of nouns when referring to an ethnic group. With the desire to be recognized and connected with their heritage and not described according to their skin color, many prefer the reference to Africa when identifying them.
Afro-Latinos acknowledge their black identity but do not accept it as a means of identification. Although many people would expect Afro-Dominicans to share the same level of identification with blackness as African Americans do, many Afro-Dominicans believe that being black places them into the same social category which African Americans associate with racism and discrimination. Afro-Latinos in the USA also do not identify with the African Americans. For many Afro-Latinos, African American means that someone is born in the USA with African ancestry and not Hispanic heritage. However, the longer an Afro-Latino remains in the USA, the more likely he/she will identify him/herself as being black just like the African American.
These diversities and complexities pertinent to members of the African Diaspora make it difficult to claim a common identity. Although many share broad similarities, African descendants do not believe these similarities are enough to associate all under the same umbrella. Every region of the world that African descendants live in has unique aspects for understanding the logic behind the terminology desired by them. History, culture, and political institutions have all been factors which have shaped racial identities throughout the world.