A few days ago, I participated in a comment string that discussed the use of the term “African-American” by Americans who are considered “Black” in the United States. Arriving at a descriptive term for the descendants of Africans on the American continent has been an ever-changing exercise, reflecting different the values and mores of the epochs in which the terms were used. In my own lifetime, based on the cultural prevalence of the times in which I have lived, I have been called “colored”, “negro”, “Afro-American”, “Black”, “African-American” and of course the ubiquitous and shameful “N-word.” There are other various terms that have been used, both positively and negatively, but these are the dominant ones.
Why can’t we seem to arrive at a common place of satisfaction regarding what the descendants of enslaved Africans should be called? History is helpful. We must remember that slaves were often intentionally separated from others who shared tribal or regional connections and amalgamated with others of differing language and cultural ties. This separation made efforts to secretly unite for insurrection and escape much more difficult and forged a “pan-West African melting pot” that blended many diverse people groups into a singular one untied in bondage. This involuntary stripping of identity has left a void of self-awareness that lingers among Black Americans to varying degrees individually and corporately.
For that reason, there is no consensus among American Blacks regarding what we should be called or how we should view ourselves in terms of specific identifiers in America. Some are convinced that we are Americans first and foremost and should distance ourselves from attempts to identify us in any other way. Others have a strong desire to connect with the roots of Africa from whence we come and believe those roots should be acknowledged in some way. In my personal journey, my experiences have made me “proud to be an American” and have also endued me with a sense of cultural identity that allow me to “Say it loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud!” Nevertheless, over the last few years I have been using the term “African-American” more frequently than others. Some eschew that term, reasoning that there is a great deal of distance and experience between those of us who are descendants of enslaved Africans and Africans themselves. While the reference “Black” is the one that is most comfortable to me and most emotionally familiar for me, I am not averse to using the “African-American” designation. Perhaps the following personal account explains my comfort with the latest cultural descriptor.
In the mid-1990’s, I was privileged to have the opportunity to travel to Ghana, West Africa. It was an opportunity I eagerly seized, seeing it for the ministry possibilities and hoping to gain some perspective on my own heritage as the descendant of Africans enslaved many years before from this region. When I went to Ghana on a mission, I learned that slavery remains a major problem within West African culture itself that has never ceased to exist. The Ghanaian government itself acknowledged this fact in the 1990’s and voiced that there was a shared responsibility for slavery and opined that without a West African cultural predisposition to slave holding, the slave trade would not have been nearly as pervasive as it eventually became for the 300 plus years it thrived. Nevertheless, it is my opinion that joint responsibility does not mean that the descendants of those taken captive should not acknowledge their continental origins or that they should somehow distance themselves from their West African heritage. As the “Roots” saga demonstrated, the desire to acknowledge the ties that bind American Blacks to Africa have remained on both sides of the Atlantic, especially on the part of those who were taken and those related to them – something I also observed on my trip to Ghana.
The trip was filled with new experiences and very powerful events all along our journey. None was more dramatic for me than when we visited a paramount chief – a chief of chiefs who was the leader of more people than the heads of state of the three nations in the region we were serving. The American and Ghanaian missionaries who were leading us went out of their way to arrange for us to meet with this chief and made a special effort to mention I was a descendant of one of the “Taken Ones.” When the chief learned of my heritage, he made a gracious effort to reach out to me. After a time of pleasant exchanges and inquiries, he gave me a new name (the name of one who had been taken more than 100 years before), had a song played in my honor that had been written for that taken one, and for my benefit, showed me a tree that had been planted in memory of that same person!
The Northern Ghanaian name he bestowed upon me is the name of the one taken into slavery many years ago. It is the name, “Sulemana.” I was stunned and moved to the point of speechlessness and numbness. The experience of being re-named connected me with a common history (I was able to tread the very path where those sold into slavery had trod, even beholding the slave castle dungeons and the Door of no Return.) and forever influenced how I saw myself and my personal life’s journey. If I thought the saga had ended, there was another surprise awaiting me and my family once I arrived stateside. As I shared my experience with Luz, she gasped when I mentioned the new name I had been given. Her mouth and eyes were wide with surprise and she covered her face in disbelief. When I asked her “What’s wrong Sweetheart?” she lowered her hands and responded almost in a trance-like state “Honey, your name means something in my language – it means, ‘Heritage Restored!’”
With that confluence of events, how could I not readily welcome a phrase that reignited a heritage that was exposed to me by circumstances totally beyond my control? For me, the term African-American is a reminder of the strength and perseverance of an unknown ancestor, who survived and pressed on through a hopeless situation, passing on life to subsequent generations to the point that I was able to receive a “heritage restored” that honors that ancestor and all the others who survived and perished so long ago. For that reason, I can say loud – I’m African-American and proud!
By the tree planted in Sulemana's memory. Taken in Northern Ghana.
The "Slave Rocks" used as a geographic marker and rallying point to transport slaves from Northern Ghana to ships on the Southern Coast.
Standing in the Dungeon of Cape Coast Castle where slaves were held just before embarking onto ships. The floors were not cemented - I am standing on petrified human waste!
One of the last views of Africa seen by slaves as they prepared to be put on small boats to be placed in the bottom of the slave ships. From Cape Coast Castle in Accra, Ghana, West Africa.
A Memorial Marker in Memory of Enslaved Ancestors