Are All Black People African American? & Why [Or Why Not]
It’s no secret that the way Black people have been treated in the United States and around the world has left much to be desired.
The history of Black people is filled with struggles and triumphs, and sadly, in the 2020s, we’re still looking for equality and equity.
Education and school curriculums are so skewed that most students don’t learn about Black history until the 28 days arrive each February.
I bring up Black History Month to help lead you to the answer of “are all Black people African American?”
If it were called “African American History Month” does it sound more exclusive or inclusive?
Think about the Black people born in Europe?
They’re clearly not African American.
African American has become a blanket term that is often used to describe all Black people, but newsflash: all Black people are not African American.
A Timeline Of What Black People Have Been Called In America
According to BBC, the summer of 1619 was when the first Africans were brought over to what is now the United States.
The ship arrived in a port of Virginia and carried about 20 people who were to be sold as slaves.
While this was the first documented arrival of slaves in the country, more could’ve arrived before then.
Now, at this point in time is when the N-word was created.
Africans were referred to as the Spanish and Portuguese words for “black” which is negro, and this is the how the N-word was derived.
Kehinde Andrews, a British academic describes it like this:
“It’s really tied into the idea that African people aren’t really human beings.
They were more like an animal than a human being, a beast of burden, could be bought and sold, could be thrown overboard ships and literally had no rights.
So when the N-word is used that’s essentially what it’s used for.”
All one really has to do is watch films set during the time of slavery.
Movies like 12 Years a Slave and Glory really set the tone for how this word was used and made to make Black slaves feel.
At this time, the N-word was widely used as an acceptable term to refer to all Black people, and while that has changed, you’ll continue to hear it be used.
While I don’t care for either the -er or -a ending of the word, the former is definitely still heard from racist non-Blacks in the 21st century.
And Black and Hip Hop culture has definitely led to many Black people “affectionately” calling their friends, family, and even strangers by the -a ending, but now you have non-Blacks wondering why they can’t say it as well.
Cue eye roll.
The N-word eventually stopped being the “widely accepted” term used to refer to Black people, but we still weren’t at the “African American” phase yet.
In the 1900s, we had the term “colored.”
This was predominantly used during the Jim Crow era.
This was founded off the 1896 Supreme Court decision on the Plessy vs. Ferguson case that laid out the law of “separate but equal.”
This racial segregation led to “whites” and “coloreds” using different water fountains, bathrooms, restaurants, and more.
The word “colored” would literally be displayed on anything that Black people of that time were allowed to use.
And while I would definitely take someone calling me “colored” offensively at this moment, not everyone feels that way.
The civil rights organization – the NAACP stands for National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
In 2008, the organization released a statement saying: “the term ‘colored’ is not derogatory, [the NAACP] chose the world ‘colored’ because it was the most positive description commonly used. It’s outdated and antiquated but not offensive.”
And while we have strayed from the use of “colored” to describe people as a whole, the word continued to change.
At this time, “Negro” was considered the most socially and politically correct term for Black people accepted by Black people.
For example, Martin Luther King, Jr. refers to black people as Negroes in his “I Have a Dream” Speech.
We still use the term to refer to Negro spirituals and the Negro leagues of baseball, but once again, the word for Black people changed.
in the 1980s, we would start moving away from this word.
Although popularized by Jesse Jackson, a law librarian at Yale University discovered a manuscript in 2016 that dates the word “African-American” back to 1792.
After this word grew in its usage, it became the most politically correct word used to describe Black people.
While this word has been used for decades, it does not describe the collective population of Black people living in the United States.
Where Does The Term African American Come From?
As previously mentioned, the first documented usage of “African American” was in 1792.
There was a sermon published in Philadelphia that is signed as having been written “by an African American.”
The usage of African American at this time was probably accurate because of the ongoing slave trade.
Where does the term come from though?
Or what does the term really mean?
The concept of African American came from the idea that all these “African Americans” came from the continent of Africa.
Now, because they were also Americans, African American seemed like an all-encompassing word to describe these people.
The thing is, while most people accept and understand the idea that Black people as a whole originated from Africa, many don’t feel the term “African American” is an accurate term to describe all Black Americans.
What Is The Difference Between African American And Black?
The difference is that not all African Americans are Black and not all Blacks are African American.
While you might draw a question mark at the first half of that statement, let me explain.
Look at the population of the African continent.
Most of them are Black.
Now, travel down to South Africa.
There are Black South Africans and there are White South Africans.
In fact, there are over 4.6 million South African natives who are White.
Now, if these people were to move to the United States and have children, technically their children are African American even if they are White.
This is an example of how African American can’t be used to describe all Black people.
Now, all Black people would not accept the term African American either.
The word African American, to most, signifies that the person has a direct lineage they can trace to Africa.
While they understand that Black people came from the African continent, calling them African American does not accurately describe them as they have no perceived connection to the continent.
Why Do Some People Prefer Black Over African American?
As someone who considers themselves Black but not African American, allow me to give you my take on this.
If someone were to ask me “what I am,” my first answer would be Haitian.
While realizing this isn’t completely correct, I would say I’m Haitian-American.
But why don’t I consider myself African American.
My mother was born in Haiti.
My father was born in Haiti.
Their parents were born on the island.
My great-grandparents were born on the island.
My great-great-grandparents were born on the island.
Are you getting the picture?
While I understand that somewhere in my history that my ancestors were slaves that were brought to the island of Hispaniola, my cultural connection is to the island of Haiti and not the continent of Africa.
My identity is made up of my Haitian culture and my American upbringing as a Black person.
But I’m not the only one who feels this way.
As someone with family from the Caribbean, you tend to find or flock to others who are the same.
My Haitian-American friends would tell you they’re not African American.
So would those whose family hail from Jamaica, Trinidad, and Guyana.
When we think African American, I think of my friends whose parents were born in Nigeria or Ethiopia.
These people have a distinct and traceable line to Africa, and that’s where the difference lies.
Why Has “African American” Become The Default Phrase For Darker Skinned POC?
As I mentioned before, the history of Black people in the United States is filled with tragedies, but it is also filled with triumphs.
The word “African American” was used to help unite us under this one umbrella.
Unfortunately, this umbrella isn’t big enough.
The intention of using this word was to unite all Black people in the United States.
Many were sharing the same struggles.
Black people were battling against racism, poverty, and more.
We were able to mobilize behind our struggles and push forward.
And as time went on during the 1980s and 1990s, everyone was content with the use of the phrase “African Americans.”
It couldn’t be turned into something ugly like the N-word or the word “colored.”
Its usage was started by a Black person who found a way to identify themselves in a way that they accepted.
What Does BIPOC Mean?
Now, we can’t talk about what we’re calling Black or African American people without bringing this relatively new term to the discussion.
BIPOC, although traced back to the early 2010s, didn’t really grow in popularity until the end of the decade.
The acronym stands for “Black, Indigenous, and people of color.”
We’ve been using the phrase “people of color” for years and abbreviating it as POC.
According to Cynthia Frisby and the NY Times, the other two letters, for Black and Indigenous, were included in the acronym to account for the erasure of Black people with darker skin and Native people.
Regardless of what some say, people experience colorism within their own community, so they wanted to make sure that darker skinned Black and Indigenous were represented.
To be honest, everyone doesn’t love this term.
Many feel it’s lazy to lump these groups together because all their issues aren’t the same.
When talking about over-policing in the United States, BIPOC wouldn’t be the correct term to use because this is an issue that disproportionately affects Black people.
While BIPOC can be used to make the distinction between people of color as compared to the white experience, it has flaws in how general it can be.
How The Phrase “Black” Can Unite Us
Black is beautiful – the word and its people.
The word can also help unite us.
We have Black History Month where we celebrate all Black people.
Organizations like Black Lives Matter want to push the idea that whether your family is from Haiti, Ghana, or right here in America, if you’re Black, regardless of how other people perceive you, your life matters.
The word “Black” brings together our experiences of being Black.
Tons of us “code switch” and change how we speak with our friends and family versus our coworkers in the office space.
While a bit stereotypical, yes many of us love our cookouts with our potato salads and watermelon.
And lastly, “Black” unites us because outside of being Black, many Black people in America don’t know what they are.
With their ancestors having been brought to America through the slave trade, many of these Black Americans don’t feel a connection to Africa.
They wouldn’t describe themselves as being African American the same way someone who is Ethiopian would.
And by us all embracing the word “Black,” we are all standing proud in who we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going.
Are All Black People African American? Final Thoughts
All Black people aren’t African American.
Black people have gone through so many names throughout history, and while some of them might’ve just been slightly inaccurate, others were cruel and hurtful.
I can’t wait for the day where the N-word is gone, but unfortunately, I doubt I’ll see that happen in my lifetime.
Regardless, Black people are strong.
We’ve shown our resilience through 400 years of being oppressed, and we’re not stopping now.
The Black experience changes as Black people change, and if you’re looking to go back to a glimpse of the ‘90s, be sure to check out our list on the Top 90s Black Movies Your Life Isn’t Complete Without.