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What's in a Name
Defining Black Identity in 21st Century America
By Ewuare Osayande
December 12, 2004
The following is a transcript of an address given by Ewuare Osayande at a panel discussion "What's in a Name" at Temple University on November 10, 2004.
There is an adage from the Xhosa people of South Africa that says "I am because we are …" One aspect of this multi-meaning truth is that one's identity is tied to a body larger than the self. The wisdom in the saying also clearly indicates that in order to understand the self, to identify the self, the group from which one emerges must have an identity as well. Herein lies the dilemma of those of us who have been called and have called ourselves by a variety of cultural nomenclatures and derogatory epithets – Negro, nigger, Colored, Black, African, American, Afro-American, African American, African in America.
When our ancestors were stolen from Africa and brought to the colonies, they were faced with this same dilemma. By what name would they choose to define themselves? As they began to create institutions they named them and by so naming them, named themselves. In the South, our ancestors enslaved named their first institution the African Baptist Church. In the North, our ancestors freed named their first institution the African Methodist Church. From the outset of our experience here our ancestors were clear as to whom they were – whether enslaved or free, we were Africans!
In 1903, the dawn of the 20th Century W.E.B. DuBois penned his now-classic text, The Souls of Black Folk. This work serves as a marker for our people in a number of ways. Namely, it serves as an indicator of the self-perception of our ancestors and forebears of that period. Once again, we witness the use of the term African to define us. Also we witness the use of the word Black as a defining term for our people as well as the term Negro. These words in DuBois' deft mind were not derogatory nor pejorative. Although Negro was not a term that we created, when used by us, it was given a dignity that surely was not the intent of the whites that called us that. We exchanged these words liberally as we saw fit ‘til a later time when we realized that certain words did not fit us as we grew into new and liberating notions of ourselves.
In The Souls of Black Folk, DuBois addresses what would become and still remains the fundamental dilemma of our existence as a people.
"… the Negro is sort of a seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world – a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness – an American, a Negro; two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."
At many points throughout our journey here in the United States of America, our dogged strength has been tested, but maybe never as tested as it is being tested today. ...
An individual’s and a group's identity is not just determined by the name given or taken by that group. It is also determined by the meaning that group gives the name as they exist and come to be known by themselves and others. A people's identity is determined by the behavior of that people as they wield their name in the real world. In other words, to be African American is defined by the behavior of the people who claim that name.
Today most Africans in America accept the nomenclature "African American." But what does that mean? What does it mean to be African American? For some it means that we are Americans who happen to be descendents of Africans. These African Americans want to emphasize their Americanness. Some even see African as an unnecessary prefix they would have removed so as to simply be viewed as American.
During a debate with such an African American, Malcolm X quipped, "If a cat has kittens in an oven, that doesn't make them biscuits." On another occasion in his speech "The Ballot or the Bullet," Malcolm had this say about Black people being American:
"No, I'm not an American. I'm one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So, I'm not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag- waver-no, not I. I'm speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don't see any American dream; I see an American nightmare..."
More recently Tony Morrison addressed the issue succinctly when she stated, "In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate"? As a hyphenated people who recognize that our Americanness is ever under question due to our political status as marginalized peoples, we must be ever vigilant to keep the tension taught between the meanings of both words – African and American.
What does it mean to be African American? For me, to be African American in an America that is the sole superpower on the planet, the source for most of the world's suffering right now means something so significant. A significance that I firmly believe that we have yet to truly appreciate. If you follow the trail of blood from the bodies of most of the world's dead (including our own), that trail will lead you to the gates of the White House. What does it mean to exist in the country wherein the White House resides?
At once we are faced with the DuBoisian twoness/duality: Cannot be fully American, yet we are still American in the eyes of those not from here. Our ever-evolving self-awareness as a people must be coupled with an ever-evolving awareness of the world around us and which we are co-habitants therein.
It is not enough for us to glory in the grand accomplishments of our ancestors when Africans ruled the world. Part of what it means to be African means to be engaged in the affairs of African people in the here and now with all our problems, conflicts and contradictions.
In heeding Marcus Garvey's call of Africa for the Africans! we must be able to point out the traitors and those that conspire against African people regardless of their title, position or rank. Just as we are clear about Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, so too should we be clear about those African despots and dictators not so named by the American government but so named by the Africans who are suffering under the heel of their IMF and World Bank funded boots. Our commitment must be with those Africans who suffer for lack of freedom, self-determination and power. It must be with those Africans suffering from an AIDS pandemic that is ravishing the African continent.
And we should not call for American intervention in African conflicts. Any time America has intervened in the any nation, the results have been deplorable. America only acts in its own self-interest and as long as white men are in power here, that self-interest will run counter to the interests of African peoples wherever we find ourselves on the globe.
While we engage in theoretical debates on what should be the role and status of women in African societies and whether or not sexism exists in Africa, African women are being raped, abused, tortured and killed throughout the continent by men as African as they are, yet blinded by their male dominant thirst for power.
Our very notion of ourselves as Africans is steeped in the understanding that we are tied to a greater unit that is the reason why we exist at all. That understanding compels us to place ourselves in a relationship of accountability to Africans who exist without the material privileges of being American. However horrible or deplorable our condition is as Africans in America, they are far better than the conditions of most Africans who live outside the U.S. borders. That is not to make a case for us to feel good about living here, I am not happy about living here, but what I am is aware that by my living here, I can make a world of difference for African humanity world-wide by organizing and fighting to uproot and dismantle the machinery of imperialism and white supremacy that is found within this soil.
We are not using our power and influence we hold as Africans in America creatively or with enough force. We abdicate our responsibility on the world stage all too often with our complaints given our own native condition. But although our gripes are legit and need be voiced each and every opportunity we have to make them known, we should widen our mouths and the scope of our vision to articulate a more thorough cause that takes into account how our lives impact the lives of other Black people who live throughout the world.
We African Americans are in a unique position. By being the people who sit "at the bottom of the well," in the "belly of the beast," we know the b.s. when it is being spewed by this nation. We can speak on the foulness of the system's innards for we smell it firsthand. We can use our second sight as DuBois called it to see through the lies. When we use our "Malcolm X-ray vision," we can see that we have more in common with our African brothers and sisters throughout the globe than any white Americans.
We must use this vantage to the advantage of our people's struggle.
When we support the hedonism of hip hop culture with its glamorization of commodities and materialism epitomized by the catch-phrase bling-bling, we render ourselves as African Americans complicit in the exploitation and oppression of West and Central Africans who have their lives or limbs severed by the internecine warfare raging over the mining and smuggling of what are called "blood" or "conflict" diamonds.
This hip hop honored lifestyle, the bling-bling, has become the pursuit of many of our youth who are without any sense of true self-consciousness and as a result are at the behest of those who manipulate media and define their existence and reason for existing for them. All too often and ever increasingly so, many of those faces that sit at the control rooms of the nation's media forces are our own.
Nigger now falls off the lips of our youth with ease. No less venomous than when it was uttered from the poisoned minds of slave masters and their descendents, the fact that our youth can now spit that word is indication of nothing less than the fact that they have been poisoned by the venom housed within the word itself. And as a result spit poisonous lyrics that kill the souls of another generation of would-be African visionaries.
The DuBoisian dual role of Black existence in America is still ours to take on. As he writes in The Souls of Black Folk,
"The worlds within and without the Veil of Color are changing, and changing rapidly, but not at the same rate, not in the same way; and this must produce a peculiar wrenching of the soul, a peculiar sense of doubt and bewilderment. Such a double life, with double thoughts, double duties, and double social classes, must give rise to double words and double ideals, and tempt the mind to pretense or revolt, to hypocrisy or to radicalism."
All of these issues are tied to our identity, how we have been defined by a power structure that despises us, how we have embraced those definitions as well as how we have self-defined in ways that resist and defy our dehumanization.
May we heed his words and not be overtaken by the complexity of this double life. We must be ever vigilant not to internalize the very Americanism that has victimized us, thus rendering us a contradiction to our very identity. Rather, may we work to live out a legacy as Africans in America that lends itself to the radicalism that DuBois called for and that our times demand.
Ewuare Osayande is a political activist, poet and author of more than eleven books including his latest works Black Anti-Ballistic Missives: Resisting War/Resisting Racism and Misogyny and the Emcee: Exposing the Exploitation of Black Women in Hip Hop. He resides in Philadelphia, PA where he is the co-founder of POWER, a grassroots initiative that educates and empowers participants to fight and resist oppression. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.