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African / Black Americans

AS EARLY AS THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY, people of African descent began to critically assess and challenge various racial designations, that had either been assigned to them by Europeans or were self-determined in the course of their separation from Africa. For more than three hundred years, the popularity of designations such as African, Colored, Afro, Negro, and Black rose and fell depending on the political climate and development of the race consciousness within the Black community.1 During this period, it was not surprising to find even two or more of these terms used in the same writing, despite the author's stated preference for a particular designation. Consensus achieved at one stage gave rise to further debate and resolution at another.

During the latter half of the 1980s, this controversy regarding appropriate terminology once again emerged with renewed vigor and continues. The crux of the debate concerns the use of the term African American, as opposed to Black or Afro-American. As in the past, the current dispute is influenced by political, cultural, and socio-psychological factors, as well as the continued struggle for due recognition and full equality within the social structure.

The issue has seemingly come full circle in that one of the earliest controversies in African American history involved efforts to abolish use of the then-popular term African. As St. Clair Drake explains:

During the first two hundred years of their existence as a racial and ethnic group in...the United States of America, there was a tendency for Negroes to refer to themselves as "Africans." In the early nineteenth century, however, free Negroes...sensed a danger in continued use of the term, since white friends and foes alike were supporting "colonization societies" and exerting pressure upon freedmen to leave the country for settlement in Africa....Leaders among the freedmen felt that they might be told to "go back to Africa" if they continued to call themselves "African."2

Nowadays, however, those who advocate the use of the term African American argue that this designation identifies Americans of African descent within the context of their historical, cultural, and national origins and shared experiences.3 Even in the late 1960s, many preferred the term Afro-American to Black American, not only because of its unequivocal link to Africa, but also because it avoided any reference to color.4

On the other hand, advocates of Black American (which, incidentally, was second only to African as a preferred racial designation during the eighteenth century5) argue on behalf of the racial pride and consciousness this term denotes. The rebirth of this term during the mid-sixties was, in fact, part of a broader social movement characterized by a renewed cultural linkage and political solidarity with African nations and peoples. This linkage found expression not only in language, but also in dress, personal names, music, art, literature, and the emergence of Black Studies in higher education. It was also accompanied by the virtual demise of the term Negro.

More than twenty years ago, Lerone Bennett noted:

[A]ll black people are affected in the deepest reaches of their being by the collective label. . . . [T]he quest for the right name is the most sophisticated level of finding and projecting one's identity.6

Beyond the issue of identity and ethnic consciousness, the general acceptance of a "collective label" would aid in political unity and reduce the possibility of division among people who share a common African ancestry. As the search continues, it is also important to recognize the individual's right to self-identify.

Given this background and in light of current trends, African/Black Americans is recommended as the preferred designation for use at Penn State. It is also acceptable to use African Americans and Black Americans interchangeably, where appropriate. It is inappropriate to refer to African/Black Americans as Negroes or colored.


1-For an in-depth discussion of the historical evolution of various racial designations, see: Sterling Stuckey, "Identity and Ideology: The Name Controversy," in his book Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory & the Foundations of Black Americans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 193-244.

2-St. Claire Drake, "Negro Americans and the African Interest," in The American Negro Reference Book, John P. Davis, ed. (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: 1966), 662-705. Also see Minutes of the Proceedings of the National Negro Convention, 1830-1864, Howard Bell, ed. (New York: Arno Press, Inc., 1969) Convention Minutes, 1835, 14-15.

3-Molefi K. Asante, Afrocentricity (New Jersey: African World Press, 1988), 67; Edward Braxton, "Loaded Terms: What's In A Name," Commonweal 116, no. 11 (June 2, 1989), 328-329; "From 'Black' to 'African American'?" Newsweek 113 (Jan. 2, 1989), 2; Lawrence W. Young, "Nobody Knows My Name," Centre Daily Times (State College, Pennsylvania: Oct. 11, 1990), 6A.

4-Lerone Bennett, Jr., "What's In A Name: Negro vs Afro-American vs Black," Ebony 23 (November, 1967): 46-54.

5-Mary Frances Berry and John Blassingame, Long Memory: The Black Experience !n America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 393. 6-Bennett, "What's In A Name," 54.

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