Sunday, June 19, 2011


 "It is impossible in a discussion to bring in the actual things discussed; we use their names as symbols instead of them; and therefore we suppose that what follows in the names, follows in the things as well...But the two cases (name and things) are not alike." Aristotle, De Sophisticis Elenchis.     


To name something is to give it a nature. A meaning. Over the decades I've used in my writing all the approved names that have been created for black people, making my selection at any given time usually for poetic or aesthetic reasons. In other words, because one term worked better in respect to the rhythm, alliteration, or the music of a particular sentence than another word. Black. Colored. Negro. African American. In my first collection of cartoons, Black Humor, there's even an old drawing circa 1969 that addresses the confusion that arises from our desire or need as a people to rename ourselves every few decades or so as our self-conception changes or evolves. 

But this topic is for me a tedious and tiring one. Whenever it comes up, I  always want to quote Thomas Hobbes when he says in Leviathan that, "And where speech is not, there is neither truth nor falsehood; for speech has something in it like a spider's web." It will probably sound strange for someone who loves language and made his living as a writer and teacher with words to confess that I am highly suspicious of words. Or perhaps it's better to say I appreciate their power to ensorcell and create illusions. My being so cautious is partly based on the different ontology of words and things, but this is not the place to enter fully into that issue. (See my discussion of this in the chapter "Being and Fiction" in Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970, pages  33-40.) As a Buddhist, I look at language somewhat skeptically, as a conventional tool but a limited one, and words as provisional ("providing or serving for the time being only"). Given the experience of change and impermanence, I simply don't believe in enduring "substance" or "essence" of any sort. Two of the dangers of language---traps we fall into often---are reification and (racial, gender, and nationalistic) essentialism.

Sometimes in the past when well-meaning people who didn't want to make a faux pas have asked me how I prefer to be referred to---black, colored, Negro, African American or whatever---I would just get playful, and say, "All my friends call me Chuck," which usually caused a startled, amused reaction, because it says what we all know anyway, which is that ultimately you're going to have to deal with me as an individual, not as a general term.

 Nevertheless, we find ourselves falling into this energy-draining discussion all the time. Just for the record, these days you won't see me using the term "African American" in my prose. I'm old enough to remember the campaign, led by Jesse Jackson, to install that term as a replacement for "black American" or "Afro American." At that time, a majority of black people polled in January, 1991 said they preferred "black American" to "African American" and, if pollsters had asked me (which they didn't), I would have agreed with the majority back then. But our newspapers and media people rushed to decide that "African American" would be the proper, journalism style manual term. Many argued that it established an equivalency with terms such as "Irish American" or "Italian American," and therefore was more accurate.

I'm afraid I see the arguments for this neologism as problematic at best and, at worst, as flawed. Africa is a continent of more than 54 sovereign states. If the desire is to establish equivalency with, say, "Irish American," wouldn't it be better to say "Ethiopian American" or "Kenyan American"? John Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, was born in Mozambique. Could she be properly called "African American" then? There is a certain murkiness in the way we use general, abstract terms like "Asian," "African," and "European" that erases the cultural complexity, differences, and outlooks of people when they are lumped together under these labels for the sake of convenience and simplification.
 It's easy to see that each of these terms for naming involves not only an interpretation of native-born black people (some of whom in complexion can accurately be called "black" while most others range from shades of brown to tan to white enough to pass as Caucasians) but also a very transparent political agenda or doctrine. "African American" as a term contains the desire, which can be historically traced back to the late 19th century and certainly to Marcus Garvey, and which was again very strong in the late 1960s and early '70s in black ideologies like cultural nationalism (and in the '80s in Afrocentrism), to ancestrally link blacks born on these shores with a location most have never experienced or visited.  I understand the often admirable political motivations behind this move---we all do---but in each act of naming we should be fully aware of exactly what we are doing, why we are doing it, and whether it is accurate or violates common sense, intuition, and direct experience.

The prolific writer Charles Mudede, who was born in Zimbabwe and is associate editor for the Seattle-based publication The Stranger, has written powerfully over the years about the importance of one's specific tribal affiliation as the traditional basis for an African identity (his family is Manica). If Mudede is right, wouldn't one need to know something about one's individual tribal background to be properly called "African American"? These specifics matter in the Lebenswelt (Life-world) or daily lived experience for individuals and groups, and they cannot easily be ignored for the sake of achieving Pan-Africanism or racial unity. I recall an Eritrean student in Washington state in 2003 writing in The Seattle Times that "I don't know about 'chitlings' or 'grits.' I don't listen to soul music such as Marvin Gaye or Aretha Franklin...I grew up eating injera and listening to Tigrinya music...After school, I cook the traditional coffee, called boun, by hand for my mother. It is a tradition shared by mother and daughter."

No doubt the identity politics behind the term "African American" are what led GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain to state just a few days ago that, "I am an American. Black. Conservative...I don’t use African American, because I’m American, I’m black and I’m conservative. I don’t like people trying to label me. African American is socially acceptable for some people, but I am not some people."

According to one news article, Cain went on to add---counter-punching with identity politics of his own---that he considers himself to be "a black man in America" and feels stronger ties to the United States than to Africa. He suggested his perspective has been informed by the fact that he can trace most of his ancestors to the U.S. and it also "goes back to slavery."

One need not be in the camp of the GOP (as I am not) to question the appropriateness of the term "African American." In his speeches and writing, Martin Luther King Jr. relied heavily on the terms "Negro" and "black," and there was at the time a strategic, political reason for that. Ralph Ellison, and Albert Murray in his very important book The Omni-Americans, persuasively argued over and over again for the historical, cultural and existential uniqueness of the black American experience. Neither wished to see that diminished or forgotten. Like King, Ellison, and Murray I did grow up knowing chitlings, grits, and the music of Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin, which I love. (The singers, not chitlings or grits.) As my body of work amply shows, I've always been open to learning from other cultures (injera sounds like it might taste good), and eager to do so. But given contingency, the accidents of birth and chance, only one country can be rightly called my default position: the one in which I was born and raised. Therefore, I tilt toward using the term "black American" whenever I have to make a choice---and my stance toward America is, of course, always critical and questioning. Sometimes it is even oppositional. (Which is a right that comes with my American-ness, a right no African nation has granted me.)  For readers interested in a very passionate, heart-felt defense of "black American" as the term we should be using, please take a look at, or click on this link:

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