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What Do We Need To Know Now?

By Asa G. Hilliard III

During my lifetime, I have witnessed several transitions in the ethnic group name used by people of African ancestry. I was born during the time when it was popular to use "colored" when referring to African people. "Negro" was also used. During the 1960s, many people felt a major shift had been made when "black" became popular, with the predictable addition that the "b" in black be capitalized, just as the Spanish version of the word for black (negro), had gradually evolved to the status of capitalization. We even became "Black and proud," i.e. we made black a positive instead of a negative name.

These changes represented struggles within the African community to take control of our naming and self definition from our oppressors, and to imbue our collective ethnic name with positive meaning. Yet we wrestled with the ascribed terms, "colored," "negro," and "black," as if we had no other choices.

Yet historically, "African" was often the preferred term, especially up until the early 1900s. The term was also used by some in the 1960s, following the publication of the book by Richard Moore, The Name "Negro": Its Origin and Evil Use. In the last decade, at a national conference in New Orleans led by Rev. Jesse Jackson and Dr. Ramona Edlin Hodge, the name "African American" was advocated - followed by widespread acceptance of that designation within the African community. This happened even as many Europeans opposed the action, as if they had any right to enter dialogue about an African family matter.

In my opinion, few of us in the 1980s were prepared to deal properly with this matter of naming, because few of us were well-informed about the history of our people before our enslavement by Europeans. We did not understand our history as a whole and healthy ethnic people, as not merely a pigmented people. We did not understand how and why we were coerced by Europeans to change our ethnic names to names that caused us to become preoccupied with aspects of our phenotype, mainly our skin color, hair texture, and facial features. The Europeans were looking for names that dehumanized and subordinated us, that contained us in our physical being, separating us from our minds, souls, and spirits. We did not understand how they, the authors of this specious system, were using their "race" construction in irrational and pseudoscientific but calculated political ways.

The names "colored," "negro," "black, "African," "African American," are more or less terms that have been accepted within the African family. My own strong preference is for African. Nationality and ethnicity are not always the same. The term "African" fits our actual historical, cultural, and even political circumstances more precisely than any other name. As Sterling Stuckey has shown, the Western experience has fused Africans from all over the diaspora into a new family that still shares the African root culture at the core, in the same way that diverse ethnic groups from Europe are tending toward a common European ethnic identity after having spent so many years believing that they had no ethnicity or that they were just Americans. The African continental name reflects that reality of a common cultural heritage and a common political need. Naturally, we recognize that the influences in the diaspora among other ethnic groups are reciprocal. We also recognize that cultural change in response to new environments will continue to happen.

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