Tuesday, March 22, 2011

What's in a Name?

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
National Council of Negro Women
Congressional Black Caucus
Smithsonian National Museum for African-American History

All of the above represent people from the same racial/ethnic background. I've been called them all to describe my ethnicity, but I've never really been sure which one most accurately describes my ancestry and identity.

Before I left for Liberia, I remarked half-jokingly to everyone who asked, "I'm taking my first trip 'home.'" I've lived all over the US and no particular region of the U.S. felt like home. I often wondered if I'd feel most at home in the "motherland." I got my answer last week.

One of my primary responsibilities in Liberia was to speak to students about American life and answer all their questions. I was a bit overwhelmed by their perception of America as the land of milk and honey overflowing with all things great. In an effort to instill some national pride, I told the senior class something I felt was very important.
"As you all know, our president is Barack Obama a Kenyan American. That's quite a large step for us in America. But of our 44 presidents, not one has been a woman. However, here in Liberia, you all have the first female African president. That's a major milestone! It's something that should make you proud to be Liberian. And you know what else? While I am proud to be American, sometimes I wish I knew a little more about where my forefathers came from. It would be nice to know if I was Liberian or Nigerian or where specifically in Africa my ancestors hailed from. You all have that. Most of you can trace your ancestry back much farther than I can. That is something most of us Black Americans do not have. Be grateful for that."

One of the students, stood quietly and said somewhat shyly, "We have decided. You are Liberian. You are one of us, sister." At which point...I erupted into a sack of tears and snot. It was a very kind gesture on their part and representative of the treatment I'd received the entire time I was there. I was looked at with curiosity, but somewhat like a prodigal daughter.

And yet... I missed the U.S. Not just the amenities like consistent running water, water pressure, 24 hour electricity, street signs, GPS, cell phone reception and wireless internet (although I certainly missed those). I missed... the United States, my home. My complexion makes it absolutely clear that a significant portion of my ancestors came from Africa. Nevertheless, my more recent ancestors have invested so much to ensure that this place we called America is somewhere we can call home. They marched, they protested, they prayed, they worked. They raised families, they saved, they sacrificed, they worked. They pushed, they pulled, they listened, they worked. They bit their tongue, they washed someone else's clothes, they borrowed from neighbors, they worked. And today, my peers and I reap the benefits of their work.

The term African-American is a conscious effort to be culturally sensitive and acknowledge Black people's distant but very relevant history. I appreciate that and I don't think Americans should forget or fail to acknowledge the story of how we got here. (Rewriting or editing of history is something I take major issue with... shots fired at the removal of nigger from Huck Finn... but that's another post.) However at some point, Americans need to recognize that Black Americans, Jewish Americans, Asian Americans and others are not the sprinkles on the American cupcake, we are the yellow...errr chocolate cupcake itself! Do White people consider themselves European Americans... or just Americans? As Smokey Robinson said, "God knows we've earned the right to be called American Americans."

I'm so grateful that I had the opportunity to see Africa and I look forward to visiting again. But I'm also grateful to call America home. African-American is appropriate for my Nigerian, Kenyan, Ethiopian, Egyptian, and South African friends who have moved to the United States, but for me... the term "Black American" fits best.

What say you? What do you want to be called and why? What are your thoughts? While you're thinking about that, please watch Smokey Robinson's Being Black. I think he sums it up rather eloquently:


  1. It's funny how when I first read the title to your post, I made the presumption that you were going to strip the terminology of minorities - as in "what's the big deal with names? why can't we all just get along?" (I've been spending a lot of time with Canadians..) But it was surprisingly pleasant to follow your path to finding a comfortable name for yourself (bc I still don't know what to call myself). And I imagined the emotional volcano that must occur when a group of people sincerely adopts one into their family... Good stuff.

    Btw, I think you'd love Daniel Beaty on def poetry jam.

  2. @WU: Well thank you. I will look up this Daniel Beaty character. Thanks for the recommendation!

  3. Naturally, I've tried for years to claim a label for myself. It becomes difficult when there is more than one label that fits, while at the same time none of them fit. So, I stopped. I'm jus Bengemin Grehe. However, I am American. In the truest since of the word. I have heritage from all over the world, made American through my ancestors experiences here.

    I feel you, Crystal. And at the end of the day, you are who you are. If Black American suits you, then do you.

    Beautiful post.

  4. I really loved this. When I read that the students claimed you as one of their own it made me smile! I am happy you had this experience and thank you for writing about it.

    I feel the way you do, Black American is the best "label" for me. African American is better suited for those that have moved to America or can directly trace their ancestors back to Africa.

    I wonder if one day it will all be a thing of the past.

  5. Nice post! I agree with you and I relate with Black American as well. I have never felt comfortable with identifying as African American because I have always had friends who are African and moved to America real young. I've considered them African American, but I myself and my family was born here in America. It's a personal preference but as you stated Smokey summed everything up!!!


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