Since 1619 at least, Americans of sub-Saharan African ancestry have had different racial classifications. The first was “negars.” Other classifications have included African, Afro-American, Black, and Black American. According to Collier-Thomas and Turner, in “Race, Class and Colour: The African American Discourse on Identity,” published in 1994, “From the 1830s to the middle of the 1890s,
Coloured American and the more commonly used derivation Coloured were the most popular terms. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Negro gained considerable support as a generic term, becoming by 1920 the most commonly used expression of race. Increasing dissatisfaction with the term, Negro, most noted in the late 1930s culminated with the Black Power movement of the 1960s.”
But by 1988, all these changed when Rev. Jesse Jackson reclassified the group: “To be called African-American has cultural integrity. It puts us in our proper historical context. Every ethnic group in this country has a reference to some land base, some historical cultural base. African-Americans have hit that level of cultural maturity. There are Armenian-Americans and Jewish-Americans and Arab-Americans and Italian-Americans; and with a degree of accepted and reasonable pride, they connect their heritage to their mother country and where they are now.” In the years since, the majority of Black Americans have embraced this categorisation; while many others have rejected it: they want to be known simply as American, or Black.
The most common argument many who reject the African-American label have made is that they do not have any kind of physical or mental affinity with the continent. For such individuals, slavery was a historical fact – a fact they nonetheless do not want to identify with. The fact that sub-Saharan Africa is their ancestral home is a non-issue. America and being American is all that matter. Perhaps, it is this line of thinking and attitude and expression that prevent many Blacks — outside of the African continent – from identifying with the Pan-African ideal and movement. In one’s everyday life, it is not uncommon to meet or hear of Blacks who, either out of ignorance, sour experience, or indifference, do not want to associate with the continent and or its people. Africa is an afterthought for many of them.
It should be noted that Black Americans are not the only ones with marked indifference and distance to the continent. Many Blacks from the Caribbean Islands, Asia, Latin America, and Europe, also feel and behave this way. Perhaps, the saddest part of this narrative is the fact that many Africans – especially Nigerians – who came to the US as toddlers or as teenagers, also tend to deny their African heritage. Many have gone on to anglicise their African names. It is also not uncommon to find those, whose parents and grandparents are Nigerians, say “my parents are Nigerians, but I am an American.” It is as if to be a Nigerian is a sin. To prefer the Black or American classification is one thing; but to deny one’s heritage is quite another. One rarely finds Americans of Asian, Latin America, or European origins deny their blood line.
Why do many Blacks, across the world, shy away from Africa and its people? Why do many non-Blacks across the world have contempt for the continent and its varied people? And why do many White Americans not think highly of Black Americans or blacks from other parts of the world who call America home? The answers are not as simple as one might think. And in fact, it may require a broader treatise to convincingly answer these questions. In general, however, one could posit that 500 years of slavery and 100 years of colonialism remind many of the weakness and impotency of the continent. After all these years, many have yet to overcome the residual effects of these inhumanities. And many more have not forgotten the agony and its misery. Why visit or revisit a place that caused so much pain?
In the last 50 years, at least, there has been significant improvement in race relations and racial equality in the US. Even so, America still has a long way to go (just as Europe has a million miles to travel in terms of racial equality and its goal of multiracialism). To be Black in the US is to be thought of as having a low IQ; of not capable of complex tasks; and of needing constant direction and supervision. In many cases, to be African is to be patronised and looked at with pity. It is as if the non-Blacks feel sorry for you; as if to be black is to be less human. Although one must admit that not all Whites, Asians and Hispanics are guilty of such disdainful attitude, still, the aforesaid mind-set is routine. At almost 15 per cent of the 309 million people in the US, Blacks are at the lower rung of every positive ladder.
At home and abroad, Africans are hired hands. In some African countries, the Indians and the Lebanese run the economy. The Lebanese especially are in charge of some of the most sensitive sectors of the economy. They hire and fire. In other African countries, the French and the Americans are in charge and they also hire and fire. The Chinese are beginning to make an inroad. It is also a fact that in many African countries, the elected or imposed presidents can’t make important decisions without seeking permission from Paris, Washington DC, or London. And lastly, Africans themselves do not make the continent attractive.
Images from Africa can be ghastly and disheartening. The images one see is of a continent and a people who are incapable of governing themselves, incapable of self-sustenance, and incapable of providing the most basic of all human needs. When the western media speak of war and excesses, they mostly speak of Africa. When they speak of dastardly acts, they mostly speak of Africa. And since 1980, there have been some 28 intra and interstate wars. There seems to be no end in sight to the rubbish that pervades the continent. But really, this needs not be our destiny; it need not be our collective fate.