A complicated topic few in America causally talk about is what to call the Americans that descended from Slaves. Over the years what is considered disrespectful has changed and currently the American Culture seems to be split between if using the term African American or Black is better. With this complicated topic I think it’s important to go back to look at some of the other words that were used to describe this population, how we got where we are today and a good rule of thumb of which term to use.
The original terms for the race that was brought to America. Both symbolize a tittle of being lesser than the slave owners. Originally words that simply referred to skin color these terms started going in different directions. “negro” was a less offensive term, but remained uncapitalized unlike any words describing other races and cultures. To be a negro was to be lesser and therefore didn’t need to have their humanity recognized. Slaves were not people, but property and were written about in such a way.
Out of the mispronunciation of negro came the term nigger. This term was and still is considered offensive. It became a word to describe the stereotypes and beliefs placed on the descendants of slaves. Not only were the descendants not considered true people, but they were considered sub human savages, with no hope of them every becoming anything close to their white counterparts due to “science”. This word became the fastest way to express a deep vile hate towards the group, in addition to many other derogatory terms.
In time a movement was started to use Negro with capitalization to describe this population. Many intellectuals of the time used this word to describe the slave descendants as long as it was capitalized to acknowledge our humanity. This is why many of the old institutions in America use this.
During this time the term colored people began to become popular with certain circles. Many people didn’t like that because all people have some color, and it was another way to be considered othered. Also many Jim Crow enthusiasts often use the term to delineate who was white, and who is not. This term was put upon the people and not particularly appreciated. Around this time, people started using the term black to describe the population of formerly enslaved peoples that existed in the United States. Although in time, many switched to Black to describe themselves many still didn’t like this term either. By the time the civil rights movement started taking off, people began to use the term Afro-American. The term came about as a way to reject colored people and acknowledge our heritage and that we were American and there- fore deserved equal rights.
During the 80s the term African-American was coined and pushed upon the population. It was hit with some resistance, as Black had been taken up by majority of people by this time. Many felt at odds with Africa and establishing ties that many felt like no longer existed. More resented the change being in the hands in a few intellectuals of the race.
Today majority of government forms, and school systems use African American as the term to discuss the descendants of slaves in America. Yet within the community, the term is not only less used but has been taken up by first and second generations of people who moved here from Africa, as not a part of slave trade. I personally got into a discussion with a man from South Africa who was upset that my race didn’t view it’s self as “American”. To him, we’d been here long enough to be American and those from Africa should be the only ones called African Americans. Being grouped into the same term as Black Americans was confusing and disrespectful. He’s not the only one to feel that way either.
Majority of the descendants of slaves in America call ourselves, black, In my experience. Although age is a factor too. The age you were born and grew up in can reflect the term you use to describe yourself. Some of the eldest of our community still calls themselves Negroes, and many still call themselves Afro-Americans to this day. Younger people tend to call themselves black, or African American often times depending on socio-economic status and/or what culture they spend majority of their time in.
So. What do we call this people?
Well… It depends. It’s important to know who you are around before using a certain word. In an academic setting African American is much more common. In less formal settings black is often used. You can follow the lead of the people around you to see what words they use to describe themselves. personally I most often default to Black or Black Americans. African American not only feels too formal but also makes less sense in comparison to other uses of American, such as Asian-American. It’s referring to people who immigrated here from the continent of Asia. We did not immigrate here, and don’t have direct ties to Africa anymore.
My suggestion is to choose a term and speak with respect. If someone asks you to use a different term, respect that request and do so. It’s that simple.