People of the African Diaspora have undergone various label changes since the first Black man set foot in the geographic North. We have been Negroes, Coloured, Black and most recently African-American. With the exception of the last two labels, each was conferred upon us by Whiteness. Having the ability to name or in this case label is an expression of social power. Because of the disparity that exists between Whites and Blacks, it continues to be important that people of the African Diaspora take control of their image and construct it in a manner that helps to dissipate some of the stigma that Whiteness has attached to Black bodies.
Just as with any other minority groups Blacks must not only battle those that seek to oppress from outside but those who do the masters bidding. You may be more familiar with names like Jessie Lee Peterson or even Michael Steele, however John McWhorter has done his fare share to undermine the progress of Blacks with right wing politics, which are clearly heavily predicated on internalized racism. On the Book which is a New Republic blog, McWhorter asserts that Blacks should no longer refer to themselves as African American. Such identification in his mind is a form of conceit.
It’d be one thing if it were a hundred years ago and lots of black people still had parents who had been born into slavery and grandparents who actually “spoke African,” as it was sometimes put. But this is a very different time.
A possible objection, I imagine, is that native-born blacks are African in a “different” way than actual African immigrants–but this would be a feint rather than an argument: clearly, the proper formulation, if we are to put it on the table, is that native-born blacks are African to a much lesser extent than African immigrants. In truth, a black man from Jacksonville has more in common with a white one from Tucson than he does with a man three years out of Senegal.
And I would argue that native-born blacks are so vastly less “African” than actual Africans that calling ourselves “African American” is not only illogical but almost disrespectful to African immigrants.
The reason that people of the African Diaspora have so little in common with Africans is a direct result of slavery. This intermixing of races was not done by choice but by the most brutal possible force. Let us not forget for one moment that we are the children of those who survived the middle passage. We are the children of the countless women that were raped and when this resulted in pregnancy, their children were not loved and cherished; their children were livestock.
We are not true Africans and this is because we were not given the choice. For many families, the fact that they continue to survive and flourish in the harsh landscape of Whiteness, is a testament to our worthiness as a people. We may no longer legally be considered chattel but it cannot be reasonably said that race is a non-issue in the geographic North. To do so one would have to ignore disparity in education, housing, jobs, the legal system, government, policing, the media etc., In every single social institution race considers to be an issue because the Global North continues to be run at the behest of White Supremacy.
What McWhorter fails to understand is that reclaiming the African part of our identity asserts that even though our physical selves were removed against our will, who we are as a people remains intact. We may not know our true names, religions or even tribes but we do know that we must continue to survive, not only for ourselves but for every single person that came before us. Though some have lived to walk again through the door of no return, we have been irrevocably changed. The peoples of the African Diaspora have been shaped by race relations and as such, to hold onto to Africa asserts that we are truly a people of no home. We are not African in the same way as the people living on the continent today but we are not yet true Americans or Canadians because we have yet to welcome at the table of plenty. This split identity is representative of our struggle to survive, when all the world would be content to see us fail. McWhorter may not find it necessary to identify as African-American but then identifying with the oppressed group is counter productive when you are trying to do the bidding of the Master.