JOHN MCWHORTER JANUARY 22, 2010
The figures from the American Community Survey just in are more than crunched numbers. They suggest that this might be a good year for a certain term now familiar in American parlance to be, if not consigned to history, reassigned.
Namely, as of now, almost 1 in 10 black people are foreign-born. About 1 in 30 are from Africa. Which means that they are--you see where I’m going--African American in the true sense. Certainly a truer sense--true as in making sense--than Tracy Morgan, Donna Brazile, Jesse Jackson, or Mo’Nique.
Back in the day--1970, to be exact--there were only about 10,000 African-born people in the United States. I kind of remember that: By that time I, even living in a populous Northeastern city, had met a single African. And it was a novelty--the accent, the clothes, what we would today call the sheer “diversity” of the man.
Last year the number of Africans here topped a million, and we could use that as a numerically convenient time to let go of the conceit we have gotten used to over the past twenty years, that black people born here are ethnically hyphenated people of half “African” ancestry.
It just doesn’t go through. The black American does not look back on a childhood in the African “old country.” The black American speaks English natively, not Twi or Hausa (and in truth, it’s possible that not a single slave brought to the United States spoke Swahili). Barely a black American alive today knows anyone who ever even knew a slave born in Africa.
It’d be one thing if it were a hundred years ago and lots of black people still had parents who had been born into slavery and grandparents who actually “spoke African,” as it was sometimes put. But this is a very different time.
A possible objection, I imagine, is that native-born blacks are African in a “different” way than actual African immigrants--but this would be a feint rather than an argument: clearly, the proper formulation, if we are to put it on the table, is that native-born blacks are African to a much lesser extent than African immigrants. In truth, a black man from Jacksonville has more in common with a white one from Tucson than he does with a man three years out of Senegal.
And I would argue that native-born blacks are so vastly less “African” than actual Africans that calling ourselves “African American” is not only illogical but almost disrespectful to African immigrants. Here are people who were born in Africa, speak African languages, eat African food, dance in African ways, remember African stories, and will spiritually always be a part of Africa--and we stand up and insist that we, too, are “African” because Jesse Jackson said so?
After all, most of us don’t feel meaningfully “African” in the least. Sure, we’ve gotten used to saying “African American,” but it has become a kind of frozen expression, like, indeed ice cream (we don’t think about it being “cream of ice” when saying “eyescream”) or even knee-l (the word kneel has knee in it--did you ever think about it)?
Or maybe we feel a certain sense of pride from that “African” part--a sense that we are not degraded versions of shiny, happy white people but something else, entire, distinct, and unassailable. “AFRICAN.” And the term “African American” even has a nice weightiness and rhythm about it.
Well, it’s time to leave actual Africans to enjoy that.
For example, how “African” is, say, Oprah compared to a Caribbean American? We have heard much this week, for example, about the fundamentally African substrate of Haitian culture, and the truth and meaning in that is clear from even a superficial familiarity with that nation. Many of the slaves first brought to Haiti spoke a language of Togo and Benin called Fongbe, in which you put the articles after nouns: the table is wema o “table the.” In Haitian Creole, the words are from French but the syntax is a lot like Fongbe: the table is tab-la. Haitian Creole is one part French and one part African. For real. And it sounds like it.
In what was termed “Negro English” two Saturdays ago, the table comes out as – well, the table.
But still, why can’t we all be “African American” anyway? What has always worried me about it is an issue of pride. The notion that we do ourselves a favor by pretending that we are part “African” after four hundred years of cultural development right here in America implies that what we have done here isn’t inspiring enough. Among black Americans in 2010, true black pride does not call itself “African.”
I, for example, don’t know where my African ancestors came from, and quite honestly I’m not on my way to turning in a cheek swab to find out anytime soon. It was too long ago--if my genes trace back to, say, Ghana with a bit of Nigeria mixed in, it would have nothing to do with the first John Hamilton McWhorter, who was born a slave near Atlanta. I, for the record, am the fifth John Hamilton McWhorter, the tail end of a story that began in Atlanta, migrated to Philadelphia, and is now living on in New York. An American story.
My openly bisexual saxophone playing great-grandmother didn’t know from Benin. My great-aunt who was still running up the steps of the now-defunct North Philadelphia train station in her nineties did not speak Yoruba (and in fact spoke a solid, crisp “Negro dialect” I recall fondly). My grandfather didn’t set up his printing shop in Lagos. My parents made my life possible far, far from Angola. I am not “African American”--I am black American.
Yeah, black will have to do. We just saw how hopeless “Negro” would be, and “colored” is cute but could theoretically apply to anyone not Caucasian. Black was fine before, and it’s fine now. And let’s not even get into incidents where white people born and raised in Africa get into trouble for calling themselves African American when they move here--cases like an especially disturbing case from last summer (a white Mozambiquean was assaulted for calling himself African American).
“He’s supposed to just understand!” some think--but how well do any of us, white or black, understand the usage of African American under current circumstances? Is there, really, anything to be understood?
I suggest there is something that needs to be changed -- to avoid future cognitive dissonance (including lawsuits) as well as foster pride in our black American heritage right here.
I haven’t used “African American” in print since 2004 except in ironic quotes or to refer to the term itself. I urge other writers to consider joining me.