There has long been a debate over the way Black people in the U.S. should describe themselves and it has changed over time, from Colored to Negro to Black to Afro or African American. Today, people either use or interchange African American and Black, but the debate still continues.
Some say Black encompasses people who are not descendants of slaves in the U.S. Others say African American is limiting and can drive down population numbers if you separate Black from African American.
Dr. Alim Muhammad, who was a minister with the Nation of Islam in the 1980s and the former director of the Abundant Life Clinic of Washington, once had a clear explanation of preference for Black versus African American.
American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS) co-founder Yvette Carnell recently posted a C-Span video on Twitter of Muhammad speaking on Oct. 10, 1989, about Black versus African American. “Where is the NOI brother now? He warned us of the dangers of adopting the term African American in 1989,” Carnell wrote.
“To equate African American with terms like Italian American, Polish American, Russian American is to destroy the reality of how we got into this country. We did not get into this country with our nationalities intact,” said Muhammad, whose other speeches are posted on C-Span.
“Africa is not a nationality,” Muhammad said. “If you are from Nigeria and you become a nationalized citizen and you want to call yourself a Nigerian American, then you help yourself. But that’s not how we got here. We did not pass through Ellis Island…We’re not no damn immigrants to this country. We were brought here against our will…”
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Muhammad also points out that Black people in America are not the same as Black Africans. “You want to pretend you are the same people that were brought over here 400 years ago…when you look at yourself in the mirror you know why you look like you look. You know that that slave master raped your grandmother. You know he went into the Black woman and planted his wicked seed into the womb of the Black woman and that’s why we are such a spotted-up people today. And so when you want to use this term African American you’re using it as a cover to hide yourself from what actually happened to you because you don’t want to face your own realty.”
There is also a debate on whether or not the “b” in Black should be capitalized or lowercase. In recent years the capital “b” has been adopted by some media including the Associated Press, whose journalism style is followed by many news outlets.
“The capitalization of black, which has been pushed for years, strikes at deeper questions over the treatment of people of African descent, who were stripped of their identities and enslaved in centuries past, and whose struggles to become fully accepted as part of the American experience continue to this day,” wrote John Eligon in The New York Times in June 2020. Eligon is the Johannesburg bureau chief covering southern Africa. He previously worked as a national correspondent in the U.S., chronicling the nation’s complicated struggle with issues of race.
“Blackness fundamentally shapes any core part of any black person’s life in the U.S. context, and really around the world,” said Brittney Cooper, an associate professor at Rutgers University, in a New York Times interview. “In the choice to capitalize, we are paying homage to a history with a very particular kind of political engagement.”
Some veteran civil rights activists aren’t for the term Black, either capitalized or not.
“Black is a color,” said the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, the longtime civil rights leader who was one of the main leaders to push the term “African American” to connect the cultural heritage of those with ancestral ties to Africa. “We built the country through the African slave trade. African American acknowledges that. Any term that emphasizes the color and not the heritage separates us from our heritage.”
Racial descriptions for Black people in America can be confusing. Journalist Aisha Harris found this out when she visited Kenya. When using the term African American, she was quizzed on what part of Africa she hailed from. So she pondered if the term Black American would suffice.
“I knew my ethnicity, but where were my ancestors from?” she wrote in an article for Slate. The trip to Kenya brought up memories of a sixth-grade school project where students were asked to trace their roots. It was then she first realized she didn’t know exactly. “I was forced to acknowledge that I had no idea where my forebears had lived, as they were brought here against their will, and any records of their origins had long since been lost,” she wrote.
Ultimately, she has chosen to refer to herself as a black American.
“The distinction between black and African-American has been expounded upon in recent years, on both a semantic level…and, by extension, a cultural one. I know I’m not alone in wishing to identify as a black American,” she wrote.
She added, “I don’t see my preference for being called a black American as a way of denying or distancing myself from my genetic African heritage. Rather, I believe it acknowledges the similarities that do extend to all black people—in spite of our differences—as black people: the prejudices we can face from nonblacks (from police brutality to skewed standards of beauty) to the cultural influences we share with one another, like the aesthetic notion of ‘black cool,’ traced to West Africa and translated more recently into black American art.”
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Photo: Screenshot from YouTube video, “Dr. Alim Muhammad, MD talks about Nutrition Response Testing,” Feb. 22, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vt_m1Yrnoy4