black identity

What’s In A Name: A Discussion On Black Identity

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Kristen Pellot

22. Intersectional feminist writer and flailing, fangirling nerd.

When I was younger, I hated being called “black”. (That had to do with my internalized anti-blackness.) But, I hated being called “African-American” more because of my complicated racial background. I spoke about my race like a relationship status: “You’re Puerto Rican though, so you’re not black black, right?”  “It’s complicated”. By my time in high school, I realized that those identifiers felt incorrect because I didn’t feel culturally connected to them. I confessed this to another black friend at a Black history month assembly at my school that was outlining slavery in America. She looked at me, brows furrowed, and said, “I don’t identify with this either. American slavery doesn’t feel like my history”. She was Haitian. By all accounts, her family had no connection to American slaves and yet she was expected to directly identify with African-American history because she was black.

It’s a bit of a joke that the politically correct way to refer to black Americans is “African-American”. We hear jokes about it on TV and movies. We’ve heard non-black people use it to explain how we should identify ourselves. I’ve heard “African-American” and “black community” used interchangeably as if those two terms wholly mean the same thing. All African-Americans are black, but not all black people in this country are African-American. I think part of the continued disenfranchisement of black people is lumping us together as a monolithic group despite nationality, culture, ethnicity, or history. Further, I think it’s an injustice not to view “African-American” as a distinct cultural, historical, and socio-political identity.

Early this year there was some controversy about the music festival AfroPunk and the appropriation of African cultures by black Americans. I thought the answer was obvious and simple–yes, non-African blacks with no actual cultural tie to Africa at all do not have a right to any African culture. However, the argument continued with the stance that Black Americans, particularly descendants of slaves, do have a right to African cultures because that is where our ancestors were taken from. While trying to get more information about this conflict, I found a panel discussion on The Grapevine.

I was surprised to see that a vast majority of the panel believed that there was no issue of appropriation. As many of the panelists continued to speak, they mentioned specific African countries where they and their families are from. Descendants of slavery, the ones accused of appropriation in this situation, do not know, concretely, where in Africa their ancestors are from. Their arguments then come across as narrow because they are looking at this situation as a black American connected to a specific African culture. But, African-Americans (descendants of slavery) do not have the same cultural identity. This is a nuance that was missed from the discussion and that is the nuance that Africans have a problem with.

There is an idea that black is black is black, sometimes even from amongst black people. But the nuances of our identities complicate our position in the world and how we culturally understand our own blackness. In that Grapevine video (and in the second part to that video) within their discussion of Afro-Punk, they talk about how they, as first-generation from various African countries, were treated by African-Americans and the distinctions between those identities. Similiar arguments have been made about other black identities as well. This issue was the basis of a lot of discourse around the show The Get Down.

In this video on the youtube channel Sensei Aishitemasu, she talks about the erasure of African Americans in place of Afro-Latinx people. In that video, she not only touches on the distinctions of Black identities but she talks about the societal difference between these different identities.

Though, as she mentions in her video, hip-hop was created and influenced by people of a number of ethnicities, the genre and even the coining of the name comes from African-American roots. So, the decision to make the leads of a show about the birth of hip-hop Afro-Latinx instead of African-American is worth discussing. While both are black, they each have their own identities. The issue comes from the idea that African-Americans and their stories are unrelatable. Therefore to make a black identity relatable, it has to be saturated with other identities. This is the conversation had in this video and I highly recommend the watch.

Whenever these conversations about black ethnicities and identities occur, the term “divisive” comes up. We like to hear about the “black community” but refuse to hear about the ways in which we are different within that community. But, I think those differences are important. Acknowledging those differences is important. There are experiences specific to African-Americans, Afro-Latinx people, Jamaicans, Haitians, West Indians, black Europeans, and African people amongst the various countries and ethnicities and acknowledging that is not divisive. There is actually a very interesting documentary series called Strolling that hopes to touch on these differences by traveling around the world and connecting stories of the African diaspora. It celebrates our similarities and our cultural differences in a way that creates a sense of unity under the umbrella term “black”.

While thinking about my own identity I take issue with some identifiers because I have two black identities that converge and are still very different. I call myself Afro-Latina, because I am, on my mother’s side (who is herself half-Afro-Latinx. Again, it’s complicated.). On my father’s, I am African-American. I was raised Latina so “African-American” doesn’t feel like it belongs to me but I still can’t deny that identity. There is a lot of othering within this community that so many people like to treat as a singular entity. Black identities are often a conglomerate of complex history. I don’t have answers to this conundrum, I’m in the midst of it myself, but I hope we are open enough to find them.