By: Curtis Scoon
The historical “African” experience in the Americas has been a challenging one. Brought to these shores by force for free labor, not much thought was given to our identity. Once slavery was abolished, the problem facing this nation became, “what to do with the roughly 4 million emancipated slaves?”
There had been an earlier effort to repatriate a small contingency of former slaves and mulattoes to Liberia, Africa, with limited success due to cultural differences. The indigenous Africans were viewed as backward by the newly arrived “Americo Liberians,” as they were called. The transplants identified so closely with the culture of white Americans that they named the capital Monrovia, after the fifth U.S. President, James Monroe. They saw little value in identifying as African and the indigenous Africans, who primarily identify by tribe, then and now, viewed them as interlopers.
To this day, even in Eastern Africa where Swahili is spoken, the word used to describe black Americans is “mzungu.” The very same word is used to describe white people.
Providing purpose for newly freed, uneducated slaves was one issue, but another problem was providing a new collective identity for a group many saw as sub-human. All people require a collective identity as a basis of sorts for ethnic pride and success. African slaves were stripped of all knowledge of culture, language, and belief systems. Compounding matters, the Africans themselves were diverse in the aforementioned distinctions.
I’m old enough to remember being labeled Afro-American – so named for the stylish coiffure made popular during the 1960’s by radical groups, such as the ‘Black Panther Party,’ and reprised by contemporary pseudo militants like Colin Kaepernick. So much about “black culture” is aesthetically driven. From hairstyles like “dreads,” braids, and afros to an obsession with Egyptian symbols. A lot of style and symbolism dominate what has come to be labeled “black culture” as a result. In a desperate need to fill the void in our psyche created by slavery, we yearn for any connection to the continent we were taken from.
As the Afro waned in popularity we simply became “Black.” I’m not sure if it is with a capital “B” or lower case. These things denote a level of respect, or lack thereof, believe it or not. Frivolity is often made complex by the intellectual eunuchs masquerading as black leaders that are consumed with “word salads” and circumlocution. The age-old street adage goes, “If you can’t blind ‘em with brilliance, bedazzle them with bullshit.”
Along came the 1980’s and Jesse Jackson’s historic runs for President. His first was in 1984 followed by another in 1988. Jackson was arguably the civil rights heir apparent to Dr. King. He relished this role and the spotlight it garnered him. He was the second black American to run for president nationally – the first being Shirley Chisholm.
“In a December 1988 news conference at Chicago’s Hyatt Regency O’Hare hotel, where leaders of seventy-five black groups met to discuss a new national black agenda, Jesse Jackson announced that members of their race preferred to be called “African American.” (1)
The irony in this is that it contradicted the Americo-Liberians who were, in fact, chronologically closer to Africa, but chose their American identity above the African one. Africa has been romanticized by the descendants of African slaves for all the wrong reasons. Selling “Africa” has become a lucrative cottage industry selling self-esteem above actual history.
Unable to accept the role of African complicity in our plight we envision ourselves as “innocent babes” stolen from our mother. In doing so, we gloss over the role of African tribes, who were often at war with each other and saw slavery as a means of increasing wealth and power.
One of the most perplexing trends is the growth of “slavery tourism” in places like Ghana, which historically profited from the transatlantic slave trade and now profit from selling the experience back to the descendants of that trade. Ghana is home to the Ashanti people who were notorious slave traders. They are also known for their Kente cloth, popular with politicians like Nancy Pelosi and the Congressional Black Caucus who notoriously wore Kente cloth at the U.S. Capitol in solidarity with the “black struggle.” Perhaps they were unaware that after the British outlawed slavery the Ashanti King pleaded with the British Monarchy to restart it (2).
Coincidentally, while Jesse Jackson was giving the black community a name change, the ground rules for Nelson Mandela’s release were being worked out in South Africa. Little over a year later, on February 11, 1990, Mandela was released from prison, and Jackson, as well as other black elite, was in Cape Town to greet him. Mandela was paraded around America and celebrated as a hero by the newly named “African American” community. A community his struggle had no connection to, but to sell us on it we had to be ‘rebranded.’ There was even a ticker-tape parade for Mandela in New York City.
After all the celebrations and parallels between Martin Luther King, Jr, and Mandela, “Mandela-mania,” as it was referred to, ended and he headed back to South Africa with countless millions and commitments from corporate America to boost the South African economy.
Meanwhile, Mandela’s newly formed African American kinfolk were left with a new name and the fleeting euphoria we have come to substitute for actual gains. It can be argued the adoption of the African American designation served to enlist the support of the most influential black people on the planet to bolster the importance of Mandela on the world stage. Mandela was, after all, a precursor to another son of Africa who would grace the world stage, none other than Barack Hussein Obama.
While I acknowledge my African origin, I’m also keenly aware that the descendants of African slaves are vastly different from our ancestors who boarded those slave ships centuries ago in several ways. We cannot undo history nor reverse the effects it has had on our DNA and collective psyche. We are a unique people in that respect. A name change cannot fix what is wrong. Neither can being fixated on the past. We have had so many name changes that changed nothing. Ideally, I’d just like to be an American, but the politicians, celebrities, and pundits of the “Grievance Industrial Complex” constantly remind me I’m different. Until it gets sorted out, just call me “Black.”