What’s the difference between the terms, “African American” and “Black American”?

Image by Alona Miller, Visual Managing Editor at The Shakerite

During my first year at Boston University, I completed an introductory writing research course titled, “African American Voices,” and learned a distinction that edified my racial identity and affirmed a sentiment on which I’ve been ruminating since childhood: There is a distinct application between using the terms, “African American” and “Black American.” The term, African American, describes an ethnic group of peoples that share a common ancestry, distinguished by the forced uprooting of native Africans to American soil via the Atlantic Slave Trade from the 16th to 19th centuries. This label also describes a culture, created by said peoples, that has evolved and transcended itself over time and is now the bedrock of mainstream American culture today — music (blues, jazz, country, rock, hip hop), dance, food, politics, literature, film/television, fashion etc. The term, Black American, is a racial identity that is unequivocally tied to a system of oppression that was created to suppress the human rights of those with brown and black skin.

The term, “Negro,” was widely used by Black thought leaders and academics such as James Baldwin and W.E.B. Du Bois. However, the usage of “Negro” was a cultural reclamation of a negative label, once frequently used by white people. “Negro” was socially acceptable to use for some time, but the vernacular for discussing race has since evolved. Throughout the 90s and 2000s, I grew up in a society where “African American” was considered a more politically correct (PC) term than “Black” or “Black American.” There was a time when white people tip-toed around the usage of “Black” out of fear of being insensitive. In 2020, it’s acceptable to call it what it is, “Black.” But NEVER, “The Blacks.” How did we get here? The hard truth is that these terms, particularly, “African American,” were developed to make the oppressor feel more comfortable discussing issues of race and social injustice while in the company of the oppressed, not the inverse.

As someone who identifies as a first-generation Haitian-American, I struggled with how society automatically attributed my identity: African American — one that did not match my personal experience throughout my youth. I was conditioned to view my identity as singular, often disguised as multiple choice questions on Scantron tests and college applications. From a historical perspective, my ancestral roots originate in Africa; however, my enslaved ancestors were not sent to American soil. My lived ethnic experience encompasses more nuance than the collective African American experience from which I gleaned in my youth.

My parents were born in Haiti and immigrated to New York in the 1970s. My immigrant family created a home that was partially devoid of African American culture, but entirely rooted in Caribbean culture and traditions. As I began to form an identity outside of the home, I noticed a stark difference between my experience as a Black American and the experience of my black peers whose parents, and their generations before them, were born in America. For example, my knowledge of racism and oppression in America was limited to the stories and experiences that my immigrant parents passed down to me, only one-generation removed; whereas, my African American peers reaped generations upon generations of primitive American experiences that informed their perception of self and progress in America. As a result, where my family was lacking in historical knowledge, I supplemented with a college education.

For these reasons, I felt dissonance with the term African American because it negated my Haitian and French lineage — a culture that is more proximate to me than African American culture.

In Michelle Obama’s 2018 memoir, Becoming, she describes her first time visiting Africa with Barack in Summer 1991:

“Barack was more at home in Nairobi than I was, having been there once before. I moved with the awkwardness of a tourist, aware that we were outsiders, even with our black skin. People sometimes stared at us on the street. I hadn’t been expecting to fit right in, obviously, but I think I arrived there naively believing I’d feel some visceral connection to the continent I’d grown up thinking of as a sort of mythic motherland, as if going there would bestow on me some feeling of completeness. But Africa, of course, owed us nothing. It’s a curious thing to realize, the in-betweenness one feels being African American in Africa. It gave me a hard-to-explain feeling of sadness, a sense of being unrooted in both lands.” (p. 160).

I point out Michelle’s sentiment because this is a realization that us Black Americans face at some point in the consecration of our individual Black identity. And for some of us, it takes a lifetime to reconcile this conflict because our ego yearns for us to matter when we are told we don’t matter, and our soul yearns for us to belong to something that was once taken away from us. Traditional African culture fused with slavery and systemic oppression was the catalyst for what is now the African American community. The African American community created Black culture, which made room to expand the nomenclature of our identity to “Black American.” Black American culture is political, whereas African American culture is historical. In a society where Black Americans are constantly revitalizing their culture in order to heal, we sometimes forget that the motherland of Africa we idealistically cling to is not the Africa that exists today in reality. African, African American, and Black American cultures are genetically and culturally connected, but are politically different due to its historical parts.

Words are the tools humans use to form and conceptualize identity; identity is important to human development. Although my identity does not define me, it informs my perspective and how I choose to see the world and create my story. Thus, it’s important to me to choose the words that best convey my identity, which inform my point of view. I can now breathe a sigh of relief knowing that “Black American” is an all-encompassing identity that makes room for the nuance of my lived-experience.

San Francisco-based queer performing artist, creative, and writer that explores black joy. prenolis.com

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