Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Back to Black

"You told us all along that we had to call ourselves black because of this so-called one drop. Now that we don't have to anymore, we choose to. Because black is beautiful. Because black is not a burden, but a privilege." –Danzy Senna "Mulatto Millennium"

With the release of her debut album, Amy Winehouse decided to go back to black. Now, in a guest column for the New York Times, K.A. Dilday makes a case for doing the same. An ex-pat living in Britain, Dilday—who, unlike Winehouse actually is black—argues that it's high time we do away with the term African American.

I, for one, am in total agreement. It's not that I find African American to be an offensive term. I use it myself. It's that I find the label to be problematic, inauthentic and just plain confusing at times.

For instance, why should blacks, such as my father, who know their country of origin, call themselves African American? What's more is that, while blacks in the U.S. are of African descent, they are not culturally African in the same way that, say, Asian Americans are. They speak no native language, have no relatives (that they know of) in the Old World and share few cultural practices with Africans. All things considered, the term African American has never rung true for me.

I'm not building the case for going back to black simply on why I find the term African American to be problematic. I'm also building the case on what I find to be so wonderful about the term black.

For years, black was something that nobody wanted to be. This well-known rhyme says it all: "If you're white, you're right. If you're brown, stick around. If you're black, stay back."

So off-putting was the term black that many of my race clung to the term "colored," long after it passed its prime. Thus, when the Black Panthers and other groups embraced the term black, it was truly a radical act. The "Black is Beautiful" movement took off, encouraging us to take pride in our hair, skin color and other physical features. The feelings of shame that the term black had once invoked began to fall away.

Now that African American is the standard term for us, I fear that black will once again be associated with shame. That's because, oftentimes, when whites use the term in my presence, they behave as if they've said something wrong, as if black is a four-letter word. I want to tell them that it's okay. I like being called black. It's a lovely term, a historically powerful term.

But the history of black isn't the only reason I prefer it. There's also the fact, as Dilday points out, that black is a more unifying term than African American is. Black unites me to all people in the African Diaspora, be they from Cameroon, Cuba, England, Jamaica or Brazil. The term also unites me to those individuals who aren't part of the African Diaspora, such as the Aborigines of Australia, the Maori of New Zealand and the dark-skinned of the Indian sub-continent and Pacific Islands. They, too, are known as black.

And, now, I’m ready to heed Dilday’s call and join them once and for all.

No comments: