During an interview with John Hope Franklin the other night he was asked what he thought about the current groundswell of discourse concerning race. His sentiment was that the current interest indicated that people were ready to talk about it again, and that things could not progress unless it was discussed. Discourse is a good thing. Dialogue is even better. However, conversation would be the best activity. Sometimes though, conversation leads to misunderstanding and misunderstanding leads to regression instead of progression.
In all the race dialog of the past several years there is a sentiment that African Americans should stop calling themselves African Americans and just be called Americans. It is further proposed that all ethnicities that are referred to as something-American simply be called "American." The usual argument against African Americans is that black Americans have nothing in common with those from the continent of Africa. Moreover, the only reason some blacks prefer to be called African-American is because, as Eric Gottesman observed in his column in the Oct. 28 edition of The Chronicle, "The reason that blacks in this country feel a need to tie their culture to Africa is because American society has treated blacks not as Americans, but as black Americans."
The aforementioned quote is not at all coherent, but I suppose it is a misguided attempt to encourage African Americans to take pride in their American history and American roots. Another example of the point of view that black Americans should not call themselves African-American is the common criticism of African Americans who claim symbols of ancient Egyptian civilization as part of their heritage or identity. The critique is that black American slaves came mostly from the east coast of Africa and not north Africa. Therefore, black Americans are not of the same ethnic group. This seems a strange critique as it often comes from whites of mostly European descent. Angles, Saxons and Jutes did not sculpt one statue nor originate any great piece of thought in ancient Greece or Rome. Yet, this has not stopped them from claiming those civilizations as their cultural heritage and identity.
Being referred to as African-American is not something that I view as a label being forced upon me. I embrace the term and understand its meaning. Granted, there are many differences between Africans and African Americans. To say that Africans see black Europeans, black Americans and whites as the identical, however, is a misunderstanding. The sentiment that there is a no connection between most Africans and African Americans is simply not accurate. There are many traditions and customs from Africa that are common among many African Americans. A large amount of African-American music is dripping with beats, syncopations and stylistic flair with African roots.
Within the culture of black greek organizations, the practice of stepping has its roots in what is sometimes referred to as African Boot Dancing. In many African-American churches, there is a natural call and response pattern to singing and preaching that comes from African traditions. The hairstyles of many African-American women are identical to styles of hair adornment of women in certain parts of Africa. What is most interesting is that many African-American women are not aware that some of the hairstyles they commonly request are duplicates of these styles. Furthermore, many ways of cooking, home remedies and folk stories common among many in the African-American community have African roots and have been passed down after many years to the point that they have become commonplace.
These are just a few of many examples of pieces of African culture hat is still maintained. To say that African Americans have not retained anything from African culture is simply incorrect. To say that African Americans are reaching across the ocean to search for a connection due to pressures from the majority society is condescending. I don't feel any pressure from majority society to embrace my African heritage. It is natural, the connection exists and is alive in the daily existence of African-Americans. The term African American is not a compartmentalization, nor is it a politically correct panacea to mollify the black masses or just a box to mark on a census application. I am an American. There are a heritage and a history, however, that make me different from many others-a heritage that many cannot relate to, do not understand and do not respect. That heritage is what makes me an African American and what makes me proud to consistently discover the African roots of parts of my daily existence that I take for granted. Furthermore, claiming to be an African American does not mean that I adopt a certain behavior or have some inborn predisposition for some academically researched ideal of what someone has defined as what it means to be African American. Although I embrace and practice certain aspects of my culture I am also an individual and an American.
Although I embrace the term African-American, I do not obsess about what I am called. Whether I am referred to as Negro, black, African-American, person of color or person of African descent-I still have brown skin and am still often treated differently from other people because of it. Calling myself a Blue-American would not change the fact that they whom I consider my people are still striving for economic and political equality. It would not change the fact that financial institutions still practice the illegal action of redlining. I will not pretend that calling myself African-American somehow lessens my burden. But, it does keep me centered and in remembrance of why the burden exists.
Ranier Simons is a Trinity senior.