African American or Black American – Which Term is Accurate?

As an African immigrant one of the things that perturbs me about living in the United States is the relationship between Africans and native-born blacks. For a long time I have had a problem with the term “African American.” I guess I am one of those old-school people who believe in the 1970s motto, “Say it loud I am black and I am proud.” I grew up saying I was a black person, and that is the word that rolls of my tongue naturally. Funnily enough I remember living in England in the 1970s, when it was acceptable to refer to black people as “colored.” (They are little behind the times across the pond!)

The problem with the using the word “black” to describe people of African descent is that is not strictly accurate. African people, are brown skinned – although there are some ethnic groups, such as Ghanaians and Sudanese, who have extremely dark skin that could be described as black.

For years I used the term black to describe myself and other Africans, until an old girlfriend of mine, who was white, pointed something out. She said that she found the term “black” offensive. I said, well how would you describe people who originate from Africa, and she said African or African American.

The problem with calling black Americans (my preference), African Americans is culturally they are not African. Black Americans watch American football, celebrate July 4th and Thanksgiving, and take part in rituals such as homecoming and the prom. That makes them American first and foremost. These cultural traits define black Americans, as much as the traits that make me an ethnic Yoruba person, of British and Nigerian extraction.

In my travels around the world I have encountered many Africans in the Diaspora – Caribbeans, black Latinos, black Americans and black Britons. I have even encountered second generation European Africans with Swedish, German, French and Portuguese names. I used to think in Pan-African terms, believing in the idea that if we had the same skin color we would have a certain kinship. That’s a noble idea but it’s simply not true, if you compare a Nigerian raised in Lagos and a black American raised in Mississippi they will probably have more differences than similarities.

After visiting Zaire, (now known as the Congo) Muhammad Ali said that he was glad that his great-granddaddy caught the boat out of there. Black Americans often have a fuzzy view of Africa, partially due to the myopic American media. They seem to either view Africa, as a black Shangri-La, where they will be welcomed with open arms, or like something out a Tarzan movie. Few black Americans are aware of the depth of the economic, social and political problems racking the continent. A recent New York Times article about black Americans tracing their roots back to Ghana estimates that more Africans have left the continent in the last 15 years than during the slave trade. This time it is a voluntary emigration in search of better economic opportunities.

In reality, Africans and African Americans are not brothers, we are distant cousins. We were once part of the same family, but so much time has passed by that those family ties are threadbare. The development of black American culture, which is a combination of parts of African and Western European culture, has created a new tribe.

This situation often reminds me of a story I did when I worked as a reporter in Oklahoma. I interviewed a man who was the descendant of Scottish immigrants. He told me the town of Glencoe, Okla. was founded by a Scottish clan, who had been forcibly exiled by their kinsmen. As generations went by this exiled clan prospered. And in the late 20th century a clan member traced his roots back to Scotland and used his resources to restore the ancestral home. When he found his distant relatives, who had fallen on hard times, they asked him why he was so proud of his Scottish heritage when life was so miserable for them.

One of the biggest differences in the attitudes of black Americans and African immigrants is their view of America. Many black Americans tend to look at America and see its history of racial oppression and social inequality. Africans who have left behind countries with chaotic governments and few opportunities tend to look at America as a place where they can succeed. As always the truth lies somewhere in the middle, black immigrants learn very quickly that you can succeed in America, but if you have brown skin, you may have to work harder and face more obstacles. After all this is 2006 and we still have not elected a president who was not a white, male Christian.

I would hope that as we move further into the 21st century black Americans could be the guiding light for Africans in the Diaspora. Many black people around the world still look to black Americans for fashion, entertainment and political activism. My paternal grandfather, who was a cook for British colonial workers in Nigeria, decided to educate his children after reading about the exploits of W. E. B. Dubois and Frederick Douglas. The fight to end the apartheid regime in South Africa was modeled after the American Civil Rights movement. Also, rap music has become the voice of the underclass around the world, from the ghettoes of Paris to the favelas of Brazil.

Black Americans and Africans can work together, but like a child meeting a long lost father for the first time, we are going to have to take baby steps. Putting the family back together will not happen overnight.

Manny Otiko is a freelance writer based in Southern California. He also the creator of the comic strip “Ghetto Fabulous.”

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