Antisophie’s Words: ‘Black American’ vs. ‘African-American’ as descriptors

Advisory: This post contains racialised terminology in context of an historical period of distinct racial prejudice.

As someone who reads a bit of pre-20thC literature, terms to refer to ethnic and cultural groupings (I refuse to use the term ‘racial’) that I’ve encountered have been antiquated and quaint at best, or horridly antagonistic, demeaning and outright wrong in others. When Immanuel Kant describes an anecdote denoting the lack of reliability for an African slave on the sole basis of the colour of his skin, or when Kant goes into a ‘hierarchy’ of the races which sounds like a Borat skit, except without any of the parody that the latter represented.

One of Michael’s favourite composers is Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Michael also is a fan of Ragtime (and does not half remind us of this fact whenever he’s near a piano). Coleridge-Taylor, is described by contemporaries, and even in some of the manuscript copies that Michael owns, as a ‘Negroe’ (sic), or the African Mahler (or black Mahler). These terms, I take to be neutral at best, to describe a man that is by his peers considered a composer of merit. These terms do make us feel uncomfortable because it reflects the historical prejudice of many blacks in Europe and the Americas in the post-slavery generations, which in many ways continues today. I consider it preferable to call Coleridge-Taylor the black Mahler rather than the African Mahler, for, while it is the case that the composer’s father originated from Sierra Leone, his cultural origin is more British than anything. Although my conception of Britishness surely differs from the late 19thC. Likening his composition to Mahler is a very favourable comparison.

When it comes to the United States, the emerging styles coming from the post-slavery black culture became a source of caricature and distinctly racialised and racist connotations. One of the very popular song forms of the time was the ‘Coon Song’ genre. The genre is argued to contribute to sterotypes of blacks in the United States that continue to this day. Just look at a Ray-William Johnson video where he makes a joke about watermelon consumption, or most hack stand-up comedians who rely such tropes.

It’s one thing to say ‘oh look how quaint and eccentric it is to use those words in the 19thC’ where a certain kind of historical context did not provide a vocabulary that was fully independent from discrimination or caricature. In recent parlance I’ve been reminded of this issue, through a slightly different trajectory. In the news of Obama’s second electoral victory, many UK commentators refer to ‘Black Americans’ as opposed to the US preferred terminology of ‘African-American’. This then made me think of the construction of these terms.

In terms of UK commentators and outsiders to the USA, the description of ‘Black Americans’ refers to an ethnic category which has social implications, in the same way that say, Black British would in the UK. In official census categorisation, Black British has further subcategories such as Afro-Caribbean etc. As far as I understand, the notion of the African American has a cultural baggage to it that tends to obfusicate in some ways buy clarify in others. The African American is a cultural category, that has a distinct history and cultural identity. In this way it can also be a political grouping because of the historical circumstances that affected such a group. In another way the African American seems to me unclear: what about first generation migrants as opposed to those Americans who have traceable links to the 19th and 18th Centuries? What about non-black Africans who are also American? By some definitions for instance, I have an African cultural heritage, but I’m uncomfortable with being grouped with the ‘African Asians’ of the 1960s and 1970s. What about Caribbean Americans who happen to be black?

I appreciate that black as an identity is a very complicated diaspora of cultural and ethnic boundaries, in many cases it refers to different degrees of skin colour that we putatively refer to as ‘black’. Sometimes I wonder whether UK commentators are not so attentive to the cultural history of the category of ‘African American’ favouring a more anodyne description, sure there’s an history to it that we don’t appreciate as outsiders to the country, but I favour the anodyne term because of its lack of inaccuracy and its robustness to capture more in a grouping than a more generic term.


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