Is Black Back?

African American's Preference for 'Black' vs. 'African American'

By Published on .

Carol Watson Pepper Miller
I was born and raised in Chicago, but also lived with my family in the South during the pinnacle of the civil rights movement when I was 7 to 11 years old. In grade school, I recall a heated squabble during recess between two boys in my fifth-grade class. Although there were no punches thrown and no cursing, things got loud and a crowd began to form.

Finally, one of the teachers intervened. "He called me Black!!!" the accuser yelled when the teacher questioned them. Sympathetic oohs and ahs for the verbally affronted kid emerged from the sidelines as dubbing a person of African descent "Black" back then, especially in the South, was as offensive to Black people as Don Imus' recent slanderous comments about the Rutgers University women's basketball team.

There has been an evolution of racial labels on African Americans. We were Negroes in the north, and colored in the south. Then James Brown told us to stand up and proclaim our Blackness through his personal anthem for Black people, "Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm proud!" The term African American became popular after 1988 when Rev. Jesse Jackson held a news conference to encourage America to use it when referring to Blacks. However, since then, several societal shifts have caused a resurgence of the use of Black:

The 2000 Census, for the first time, encouraged people to self-select their race. This fueled more conscious discussions about where people fit in and how they preferred to be addressed.

The hip-hop culture's mandate to "keep it real" helped reintroduce Black as a positive expression of intimacy and familiarity, as opposed to the negative baggage it once carried before and during the civil rights movement.

Growth among both African and Caribbean immigrants who preferred Black as the term for being included in America's cultural fabric also contributed to the shift back to Black, as most tended to object to the African-American label.

These dynamics have also caused this issue to be more ambiguous than ever. For example, no matter how eloquent and insightful a speaker I might have been, at the end of many presentations the one question that is usually asked by white audience members (most often in private) is: "How do African Americans want to be addressed – Black or African American?

Black bloggers The Angry Black Woman and Ron's Log prefer the term "Black," as do many people who posted responses to the Black vs. African American question:

"African American excludes non-African Blacks. ... We have a lot in common with people all over the globe. Our issues are not always uniquely American."

"...the bigger drawback to African American is that you need to know if the person is an American."

"I am surprised that not a single Black American wants to be called and African American. ... They all just caved to the incredible pressure from the Census people"

Even though today more than ever, African American and Black are used interchangeably the current trends indicate a preference for Black, especially the impact from African and Caribbean immigrant growth.

"Black" or "African American" racial labels do make a difference, so getting it right, at the right time means understanding and paying attention to key societal shifts and currently, Black is back!
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