Q: A reader commented on our article 'You Must Have Voted for Obama': 5 Things NEVER to Say to Blacks. He quoted a portion of that article and made an observation that makes for a good teachable moment.
"Don't assume all Blacks are African-American; there also are people who are African, Afro-Latino, Afro-European, Afro-Caribbean, etc."
Thank you for posting that. One of my best friends in high school was Black but traced his ancestry back to France. It bothered him whenever someone referred to him as "African-American."
On the flip side, one of my son's best friends in high school was born in America, but both of his parents were born and raised in Africa. He could legitimately be called "African-American" but probably never will be since all of them are Caucasian.
Just goes to show, you can't judge a book by its cover ... or a person by his/her color.
A: Yes and no. I acknowledge that you posted your comment with positive sincerity; however, I agree with your first point, but not the second.
"African-American" refers to descendants of enslaved Black people who are from the United States. The reason we use an entire continent (Africa) instead of a country (e.g., "Italian-American") is because slave masters purposefully obliterated tribal ancestry, language and family units in order to destroy the spirit of the people they enslaved, thereby making it impossible for their descendants to trace their history prior to being born into slavery. This was all in an effort to prevent enslaved people from organizing and revolting their bondage (look up Nat Turner).
Enforcing illiteracy of enslaved people (by law, with severe penalties—including death in some cases—for teaching an enslaved person to write) and obliterating any sense of history or familial ties was a tradition in our country starting in 1619 (before the Revolution) and ending after the Civil War. (One can argue that this practice continued into the 20th century.) This is why our African-American fellow citizens cannot trace their heritage past the continent of Africa. I'll re-emphasize this point: Their personal and family history was purposefully obliterated by people who enslaved other people.
For purposes of respect, as well as providing context to current-day events and economic realities, it is important to acknowledge and understand this part of American history. America is unique in having people who are African-American. For a personal insight into what all this means, I suggest you read Frederick Douglass' autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom. In addition to learning history in a very real and first-person way, you'll also learn things about our language—for example, the bone-chilling origin of the common phrase "sold down the river." For an outstanding overview of the repercussions of slavery in the modern-day era, I most strongly recommend Michelle Alexander's recent book The New Jim Crow.
In the case of your son's friend, post-slavery immigrants from a country in Africa can readily identify themselves by where they came from—it's on their passports. Black immigrants from Africa can identify themselves by country and tribe (keep in mind that country boundaries in Africa are chiefly colonial constructs). A modern-day immigrant from Africa may refer to him- or herself by a hyphenated identity—"Sudanese-American," for example.
A special note for the people who email me about their white ancestors who were enslaved: Virginia codified slave laws to be exclusive to Black people in 1705 (establishing white supremacy), and indentured servitude was ended by the early 1800s. Comparing indentured servitude of white people to the history of African-Americans is insulting, in my opinion, and I won't entertain it in this publication.