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There’s A Gap Between The Words

SATURDAY, DEC. 21, 1996

Today’s topic: the trouble with being African American. Meaning the term, not the people.

I refer to the January issue of Playboy, in which interviewee Whoopi Goldberg says she doesn’t allow people to call her an African American … “because I’m not African American. I’m purebred, New York raised. I’m not from Africa. Calling me an African American divides us further.”

Candidly, I am loath to agree with anything this woman has to say on the subject of race. She is, let us not forget, the same grinning ninny who saw nothing wrong when her white boyfriend, Ted Danson, performed a blackface sketch in her dishonor at a Friar’s Club roast in 1993. Compared to Goldberg, Clarence Thomas is Malcolm X.

But for all that, she has a point here.

It’s not that “African American” is divisive, as Goldberg and many others claim it is. I’m at a loss to figure out how one can divide what was never together.

Nor is it that the reasoning behind the term is suspect. We call ourselves African Americans because that ties us to our ancestral homeland and because in the public mind, “black” is synonymous with evil and filth.

And yet … 10 years after the term came into general use, I am still not able to make my peace with it. Ten years later, it still feels imperfect, drawing attention to itself by its very awkwardness. Ten years later, it still seems like a stretch by colored folks, black people, Negroes, whatever, to lay claim to this grand, iconographic African past. But we are so many centuries removed from Africa that the attempt feels suspect and forced.

A man just off a plane from Nigeria is an African American. We are Americans of African heritage. There is a difference.

It’s not that I’m opposed to “African American.” Just ambivalent. Hey, I use the term myself. It is, after all, the politically correct thing to say.

But saying it still feels not unlike a fashion statement masquerading as deeper truth. Because, yes, Africa is place of our origin, engine of our culture, foundation of our identity. But despite all that, it is not our home. We have been gone too long.

This reaching back, this searching for touchstone is only natural, I suppose, especially for a people that has been largely defined by rupture and dislocation. We have been separated, taken, removed, split apart, lost … and it’s only to be expected that we would try till the end of our days to get back to who we were.

But it should not be at the expense of ignoring who we are. Nor of denying a compelling truth: that this is now home. Sometimes we act as if it were not. Often, other people treat us the same way.

But the first indentured servants arrived in 1619, the year before the Mayflower. Two centuries before that, a black Spaniard named Esteban explored what are now the states of Arizona and New Mexico. And in his book “They Came Before Columbus,” anthropologist Ivan Van Sertima documented evidence of Africans who explored what is now south Texas in ancient times.

We forget sometimes that we are as American as Mom’s sweet potato pie. We picked American cotton in the delta of the Mississippi. Fought American wars at Yorktown, Richmond, Normandy and Saigon. Championed American ideals at the Mall in Washington and the jails of Birmingham. Created American music on a front porch in Selma, a whorehouse in New Orleans, a street corner in Brooklyn, a bungalow in Detroit. And every day, we teach American children, cook American meals, write American books, drive American buses, enforce American laws and make American history for generations yet unborn.

We are unalterably American.

But “African-American …?”

Well, sure, if you insist. But know it for what it is: the latest chapter in a long, ongoing debate, the latest reflection of the duality W.E.B. DuBois once famously felt in his landmark work, “The Souls of Black Folk.” Meaning the schism in the midst of self that asks, Which am I? African or American?

The debate can’t end, nor moving on begin, until we find a way to make peace with the obvious truth.

We are neither. And we are both.

Understand that, and what we are called will take care of itself.


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