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Do You Prefer African American or Black?

AP | 2/6/2012, 11:32 a.m.

The Spanish word "negro" means black. That was the label applied by white Americans for centuries.

The word black also was given many pejorative connotations - a black mood, a blackened reputation, a black heart. "Colored" seemed better, until the civil rights movement insisted on Negro, with a capital N.

Then, in the 1960s, "black" came back - as an expression of pride, a strategy to defy oppression.

"Every time black had been mentioned since slavery, it was bad," says Mary Frances Berry, a University of Pennsylvania history professor and former chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Reclaiming the word "was a grass-roots move, and it was oppositional. It was like, 'In your face.'"

Afro-American was briefly in vogue in the 1970s, and lingers today in the names of some newspapers and university departments. But it was soon overshadowed by African-American, which first sprouted among the black intelligentsia.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson is widely credited with taking African-American mainstream in 1988, before his second presidential run.

Berry remembers being at a 1988 gathering of civil rights groups organized by Jackson in Chicago when Ramona Edelin, then president of the National Urban Coalition, urged those assembled to declare that black people should be called African-American.

Edelin says today that there was no intent to exclude people born in other countries, or to eliminate the use of black: "It was an attempt to start a cultural offensive, because we were clearly at that time always on the defensive."

"We said, this is kind of a compromise term," she continued. "There are those among us who don't want to be referred to as African. And there also those among us who don't want to be referred to as American. This was a way of bridging divisions among us or in our ideologies so we can move forward as a group."

Jackson, who at the time may have been the most-quoted black man in America, followed through with the plan.

"Every ethnic group in this country has a reference to some land base, some historical, cultural base," Jackson told reporters at the time. "African-Americans have hit that level of cultural maturity."

The effect was immediate. "Back in those days we didn't talk about things going viral, but that's what you would say today. It was quite remarkable," said the columnist Clarence Page, then a reporter. "It was kind of like when Black Power first came in the '60s, there was all kinds of buzz among black folks and white folks about whether or not I like this."

Page liked it - he still uses it interchangeably with black - and sees an advantage to changing names.

"If we couldn't control anything else, at least we could control what people call us," Page said. "That's the most fundamental right any human being has, over what other people call you. (African-American) had a lot of psychic value from that point of view."

It also has historical value, said Irv Randolph, managing editor of the Philadelphia Tribune, a black newspaper that uses both terms: "It's a historical fact that we are people of African descent."