I am Black, not African-American

Matthew Wallace | Staff Writer

Back in September, Black Students United at Cornell University handed their university’s president, Martha Pollack, a list of demands after a racist incident on campus. The most talked about demand was for the university to “come up with a plan to actively increase the presence of underrepresented Black students on this campus. We define underrepresented Black students as Black Americans who have several generations (more than two in this country).” They have since issued an apology to this demand, but I don’t think they should have: They aren’t wrong. Colleges have a disproportionate amount of African and first generation students with African parents. The higher education systems pimps out Black faces for diversity, but only if those Black faces aren’t the product of generations of American slavery. How the United States has treated its Black population is a national embarrassment—and one that will not be forgotten by replacing the experiences of Black Americans with the rest of the African diaspora.

For Black people in America, “Black” and “African-American” are usually used interchangeably. However, I have shifted toward hating when people describe Black Americans as African-American. To me, African-American is a way to quietly forget the hundreds of years of torture Black Americans have suffered in America. It invokes a cultural foundation in Africa, something many Black Americans do not have. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” You’re right, William Shakespeare—changing the name does not change who you are underneath. Whatever name is decided on does not change the fact that America has seen me as subhuman, as property, as a second class citizen and as a threat.

Despite what is said by those who believe all of history is contained in statues of loser traitors, using African-American to describe Americans who are the descendants of the slaves is censoring history. I am tired of having my community continually build itself from the worst conditions, only to be destroyed by those who still benefit from having a low man on the totem pole. And even though there will still be Black people who do not care about being called Black or African-American, there is a real danger to willingly allowing the Black experience in America to not be seen independently of the larger, worldwide Black community.

Many people misconstrued Black Students United’s demands as xenophobic and believed that their anger was directed at the wrong people. How is it xenophobic to want the systems built for Black Americans to be used by Black Americans? There have been countless Black Americans who have died for the right to have an education equal to whites. This is especially visible on college campuses, as there is an increasing push to having more low-income Black students among their ranks. But as the Cornell students highlighted, Black Americans have been increasingly ignored in favor of more African and first generation students. Every minority deserves the right to be equal and to be allowed to flourish, but not at the expense of another minority. The “model minority” myth is alive and well and has always been used by the white majority to keep minority groups in check. Does it bother me that marginalized groups are pitted against each other? Absolutely. Does it bother me that other minority groups elevate themselves by willingly looking down on Black Americans? Again, absolutely. And just because you aren’t in the group causing the most harm does not mean you are innocent. Systems depend on the people sustaining them, and the remainder of the African diaspora has its own role in how Black Americans have been subjugated.

There will be those who see my stance as anti-immigrant or who think I am unnecessarily angry at another minority group instead of focusing on coming together and fighting the real oppressors. That could not be further from the truth. I recognize the difficulties of being a minority in America, and I support all efforts toward equality by any marginalized group. There are causes that directly affect me, and I can be more visible in those movements. And there are other movements for which I am an ally. Being told who I can and cannot be angry with by non-Black Americans is a slap in the face. I can be angry at the system that profits off the misery of Black Americans, and I can also be angry at the African who denigrates me just to elevate themselves. I can also be angry at the first generation student who benefits from this, knowing it’s wrong, but who does nothing to stop the injustice because they benefit from the system continuing. This is parallel to men who complain about the #MeToo movement as being against “all men.” There are the monsters who willingly keep the system going, and there are those who just benefit from it, and do nothing to stop the injustices against others. I don’t tell women that they cannot be angry at those who passively allow sexist institutions to continue. Just because we look the same and deal with similar issues does not mean your past of calling me an “akata” is forgiven.

On a more personal level, this topic has a major impact on my life. Within two years, half of my family will be made of African immigrants and first generation Americans. Whenever I tell people my fiancee is Ethiopian, the question of whether I will have an African wedding pops up. This is an innocent and reasonable question to ask, but it hints at the glorification of African culture over Black culture. There is value in connecting Black populations around the world, but not when those Black populations think of my community as less than.

The African Union, a political and administrative agreement between all African countries, has launched a college campaign to foster unity within the African diaspora. While important, there was no indication that Black Americans wanted this unity. There are pressing issues that need to be solved within the Black community, by the Black community, without any outside interference. If the African Union wishes to foster true unity, than it should focus on how its own community views Black Americans. To me, the campaign feels like an invasion. It is made up of non-Black Americans who are starting a conversation with Black Americans on how they interact with other members of the African diaspora. Why is there a sudden need for “unity” when they have had decades to achieve the goal? It reeks of an opportunistic motive to use the power of the Black American for the African Union’s own gains. And if you doubt the power of Black Americans, just ask Doug Jones how he got his Senate seat.

This is an excruciatingly complex topic. I admit that I am overprotective of Black communities in America. I am suspicious of those who want to use us for our bodies, our culture and our voting power. I am able to be in my privileged position only because I stand on the shoulders of titanic Black men and women, who have fought their entire lives on the march to equality. I am not sorry about being Black. I will not ignore the ways other minorities have used Black Americans as a way to suck up to the white majority. And I will never stop being protective of Black Americans, because for so long, no one has. James Brown can accurately summarize my thoughts: “Say it loud: I’m Black and I’m proud.”

  • Val Ryland

    I always thought “African-American” was a fundamentally racist term. Nobody calls white people “European-American”; to do so would give the impression that the person in question is not fully American, may be an immigrant, etc. African-American, to me, always sounded like an attempt to make black people seem less American, less deserving of being here.