I saw this interesting commentary in the New York Times about how black people around the world see Obama and his race. The author basically sees “African American” as a term that excludes, rather than includes, people. She says that she is happy to go “back to black” because the term is much more inclusive of the many black people around the world, and because so many black people around the world would like to see a black person achieve something that has never been done before.
The Asian version is a good question for “Asian Americans.” China used to go crazy when Michael Chang played tennis, and they had a big banquet for entrepreneur Charles Wang when he visited. I remember living in Japan during the Winter Olympics and hearing Japanese people go crazy over Michelle Kwan. People still want to see people of their ”own kind”breaking historical barriers of achievement.
So does it make sense to just go “Asian?” Or are the cultural issues significant enough so that Asian people around the world have issues that are too different for any meaningful overlap?
February 27, 2008
Back to Black
By K.A. Dilday
I’M black again. I was black in Mississippi in the 1970s but sometime in the 1980s I became African-American, with a brief pause at Afro-American. Someone, I think it was Jesse Jackson, in the days when he had that kind of clout, managed to convince America that I preferred being African-American. I don’t.
Now I live in Britain where I’m black again. Blacks in Britain come from all over, although many are from the former colonies. According to the last census, about half of the British people who identify as black say they are black Caribbean, about 40 percent consider themselves black African, and the rest just feel plain old black. Black Brits are further divided by ancestral country of origin, yet they are united under the term black British — often expanded to include British Asians from the Indian subcontinent.
The term African-American was contrived to give black Americans a sense of having a historical link to Africa, since one of slavery’s many unhappy legacies is that most black Americans don’t know particulars about their origins. Black Americans whose ancestors arrived after slavery and who can pinpoint their country of origin are excluded from the definition — which is why, early in his campaign, people said Barack Obama wasn’t really African-American. Yet, since he has one parent from the African continent and one from the American continent, he is explicitly African-American.
Distinguishing between American black people based on their ancestors’ arrival date ignores the continuum of experience that transcends borders and individual genealogies and unites black people all over the world. Yes, scientists have shown that black means nothing as a biological description, but it remains an important signal in social interaction. Everywhere I travel, from North Africa to Europe to Asia, dark-skinned people approach me and, usually gently but sometimes aggressively, establish a bond.
When, early on in the race for the Democratic nomination, people wondered if black Americans would vote for Mr. Obama, I never doubted. During the last two years I’ve learned to decipher his name in almost any pronunciation, because on finding out that I’m an American, all other black people I meet, whether they are Arabic-speaking Moroccans in Casablanca, French-speaking African mobile-phone-store clerks in the outer boroughs of Paris, or thickly accented Jamaican black Brits, ask me eagerly about him. Black people all over the world feel a sense of pride in his accomplishment.
It’s hard to understand why black Americans ever tried to use the term African-American to exclude people. The black American community’s social and political power derives from its inclusiveness. Everyone who identifies as black has traditionally been welcomed, no matter their skin color or date of arrival. In Britain, in contrast, dark-skinned people who trace their relatives to particular former colonies can be cliquish. Beyond the fact that blacks make up a smaller share of the population here, this regional identity may be a reason that the British black community isn’t as powerful a social and political force.
I’ve never minded not knowing who my ancestors are beyond a few generations. My partner is an Englishman whose family tree is the sort that professional genealogists post on the Internet because it can be traced back to the first king of England in the 11th century. To me, it’s more comforting to know that, through me, our children will be black, with all of the privileges and pains.
On Mr. Obama’s behalf, American blacks have set aside their exclusive label. Polls show that about 80 percent of blacks who have voted in the Democratic primaries have chosen him. And all of the black people in the mountains of Morocco, the poor suburbs of Paris, the little villages in Kenya and the streets of London are cheering Mr. Obama’s victories because they see him as one of their own.
Black Americans should honor that. It’s time to retire the term African-American and go back to black.
K. A. Dilday is a columnist for the online magazine Open Democracy.