Why Do We Say "African American"?
Language is constantly changing and ethnonyms are no exception. From "Negro" to "Colored" and "African American" to "Black," the people and cultures of African origin living in the United States have had many names. Today Danielle looks at the etymology and reclamation surrounding Black history and identity.
In June 2020, in the wake of massive protests against police brutality and the death of
George Floyd, a Black man who was killed during his arrest in Minneapolis, the New York Times
made an unprecedented move.
They announced that from then on, they would be capitalizing the ‘B’ in ‘Black’
to “describe people and cultures of African origin, both in the United States and elsewhere.”
It was a big moment not only for Black people, but also for the term “Black” itself.
As is the case for many communities, “Black” isn’t the only accepted word that’s been
used to describe Black people.
There are other “ethnonyms,” or names that refer to ethnic or racial groups.
Perhaps its most famous contemporary is “African American,” a term that has become somewhat
less popular in recent years in the U.S.
But let’s take a look at the history of both terms.
After all, if we’ve learned anything on this channel, it’s that language is a constantly
Perhaps by digging deeper, we can gain a deeper understanding of just how difficult it is
to encapsulate different peoples and cultures under one umbrella, and how what appears to
be the end of a linguistic journey is often just the beginning.
Before we get into the nuances of the different words people o f African descent have used
to describe themselves, we should probably start with, well, Africa itself.
Not just the continent, but the word.
Africa is a massive, massive chunk of the earth, and is home to many different cultures
that don’t necessarily see themselves as belonging to the same group.
Indeed, it’s the most diverse continent in the world.
It is, after all, where our human history begins.
The history of the word “Africa” is contentious, and scholars have been left with just theories.
We know the ancient Romans coined the term, but we don’t know where they got it from.
Still, historians agree that the first known reference to “Africa” was around 2000
years ago when the Romans used it to refer to Carthage, a rival empire located in present
day Tunisia and Northern Algeria.
Of course, the Romans weren’t the first and only people to give this region a name.
The ancient Greeks called the continent “Libya.”
But what did the ancient Africans call themselves?
Well, the many, many tribes and cultures there had a number of names and concepts to describe
But ultimately, the Roman term “Africa” won out among Europeans, even though, in the
minds of the ancient Romans, the name only applied to a small portion of the northern
coast of the continent.
That’s possibly because as Europeans moved further south into the continent, they just
brought the name with them.
Thus, the word “Africa” came into popular usage.
So that’s where we get “Africa,” but now comes another piece of the puzzle: Where
did we get the word “black,” and how did it come to be thought of as interchangeable
It’s important to get into, because while the term “Black” is gaining in popularity
today, the term “African American” actually rose to prominence because it was considered
more appropriate than “Black” or “colored.”
In other words, “African American” exists because it was once seen as a sort of remedy
to the perceived inappropriateness of “black,” a word that has historically been used for
people of sub-Saharan African descent, particularly those who were enslaved.
It was at a news conference in 1988 in the Chicago Hyatt Regency O’Hare Hotel that
civil rights activist Rev. Jesse L. Jackson announced that Black people preferred to be
called “African American.”
Jackson said: “To be called African American has cultural integrity . . . It puts us in
our proper historical context.
Every ethnic group in this country has a reference to some land base, some historical culture
African-Americans have hit that level of cultural maturity.”
And why transition to “African American” from “Black”?
Well, as Black Studies scholar E. Patrick Johnson notes, the word has a “difficult
history” that goes back to at least the 14th century Europe where “black” took
on a moral dimension.
It was used to describe evil and corruption, something that was tainted or soiled.
It came in handy when time came to justify the enslavement of an entire group of people,
and was used to associate dark-skinned people with immorality.
It was used, in essence, to make it seem like they didn’t have the same kind of souls.
But during enslavement, “black” was not the most prominent word used to describe the
people stolen from their homes in Africa.
“Colored” people and “negro” were much more common, and it wasn’t until after
emancipation in 1863 that “black” came into more popular use.
Though, as E. Patrick Johnson mentions, this wasn’t necessarily positive.
Instead, the increased prominence of the word “black” was due to “black codes,”
which limited rights post-emancipation.
The word being used to justify white supremacy meant that using it in any other context would
be an act of reclamation, and like many words affecting marginalized groups that get reclaimed,
not everyone in the community is down with it.
But the word’s complicated history also made it a potent tool for Black activists
and revolutionaries to recontextualize its power: as a word that referenced a brutal
history, put in the hands of the people it once denigrated.
This way of thinking found a powerful advocate in W.E.B.
Du Bois in the early twentieth century.
Du Bois was a critic of racial biological essentialism, or the idea that people are
born into different races that determine, among other things, their intelligence and
He published The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, a seminal work on race in America that boldly
recontextualized the word “Black.”
For an example of how it was received, the Nashville Banner wrote in its review that
The Souls of Black Folk was, “dangerous for the Negro to read, for it will only incite
discontent and fill his imagination with things that do not exist, or things that should not
bear upon his mind."
Another person who embraced the word “Black” was Stokely Carmichael, an organizer who brought
wide attention to the term “Black Power” during the June 1966 Meredith March Against
Fear in Mississippi.
At 19, Carmichael had been the youngest person arrested in the 1961 Freedom Rides, and had
gone on to become a prominent voice in Black activism.
“Black Power” caught on and was embraced by the Black Panthers, which was founded in
1966 in Oakland, California, by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale.
They aligned with socialism and Marxist political philosophies, and they believed revolutionary
change was required to root out racism.
But some prominent factions of the movement weren’t too keen on the term “Black Power.”
Roy Wilkins, the then executive director of the National Association for the Advancement
of Colored People, condemned it as “anti-white separatism,” and Martin Luther King Jr.
said the phrase “falls on the ear as racism in reverse.”
But it’s not a matter of figuring out who is right and who’s wrong here, rather it’s
about realizing that these debates are not new and are likely to continue.
An essay in 1904 by Black activist Fannie Barrier Williams tackled the subject of shedding
the then popular term “Negro” in favor of “colored” or “Afro-American.”
She preferred “colored,” saying it was a “name that is suggestive of progress toward
And indeed, “colored” would go on to become a prevalent term for Black people in the U.S.
Its eventual association with Jim Crow, however, saw it become taboo in the ensuing decades.
In the end, no one person’s word is final.
It’s better and more accurate to think of this as an ongoing conversation about identity,
inclusion, and language.
Language is a powerful tool that can oppress and empower.
That’s why slurs are so often at the center of debate, and why reclamation is such a tricky
Black rising in popularity over African American doesn’t put a period on the discussion so
much as it introduces more question marks.
Black scholars and sociologists are now asking, for example, if the word “white” should
be capitalized as well.
Some say it shouldn’t be, as it refers to a skin color and not a shared experience,
while others say this argument gives white people a pass on having to reckon with their
Not capitalizing it, in other words, makes it seem like less of an identity or a culture,
and thus absolves white people from having to think of their actions in the collective
like so many nonwhite communities are pushed to do.
Whatever the future holds, the common thread in both past and present is the desire of
marginalized people to use language to put a name to their experiences, empower themselves,
and connect with one another.
It’s likely that will remain the case.
If we’ve learned anything over the past few months, it’s that voice is a powerful
thing that can change the world.
It’s important to be mindful of what you say.