'African-American'conveys more than skin color, some say


In an Accent story yesterday, the three students pictured above from Robert Coleman Elementary School in West Baltimore were incorrectly identified. The students, from left, are Kanika Ingram, Erica Leak and Felecia Garrett. The Evening Sun regrets the error.

IF JAMES Brown's self-esteem anthem of the 1960s had been written in the 1990s, his fans might chant: "Say it loud, I'm African-American and I'm proud."

Supporters might watch a telethon for the United African-American College Fund or attend a banquet of the National Association for the Advancement of African-American People, if the groups had been founded today. But the academic group continues to use the word "Negro," and the NAACP retains "colored," because this is an important aspect of their history.

The song says "black," which replaced -- and in many circles is preferable to -- such previous appellations as "colored" and "Negro." Now the term "black" is itself undergoing a similar, although far from universal, rethinking.

It may be losing ground in favor of "African-American," in fact. That's especially true among those in the thick of the Afrocentrism movement, who seek to invoke a heritage that pre-dates American slavery and create a self-determinism that includes naming yourself rather than merely accepting what others would name you.

Maryland Del. Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore, introduced a bill last week to make this increasingly popular self-description official. The bill, now in committee and scheduled to take effect in October if passed by the General Assembly, would mandate the use of "African-American" in future state laws.

While today is the official Martin Luther King holiday, Mr. Rawlings presented his argument for the bill Wednesday, the slain civil rights hero's actual birthday. But while Martin Luther King himself, befitting his era, tended to use "black" in references to his racial group, times change and, with them, preferences in terminology.

Even before Mr. Rawlings introduced his bill, the shift toward "African-American" was well under way on street level, even among children, who seem to sense that a person is more than the color of his or her skin.

"It's an insult being called black," said Rasheeda Crocker, a fifth-grader at Robert Coleman Elementary School in West Baltimore. "I would rather be called African-American. We come from the motherland."

"I like being called black, but I'd rather be called African-American because it makes me remember my ancestors," agreed fellow fifth-grader Janel Harris, "like Martin Luther King Jr., Booker T. Washington and Mary Bethune."

The ancestral bond to Africa, and the personal pride that it symbolizes, seems strongest among the young. For some of their elders, though, the term "black" harkens to a similarly proud legacy -- the civil rights movement of the '60s, when everyone from Olympic athletes to inner-city activists stabbed their fists in the air to declare "Black Power."

"Since I'm 40 years old and used to the reference of black American, I don't find it distasteful," said John Clark Mayden, an attorney. "I have become accustomed to being called black, and I don't find it demeaning."

Others in their 40s, however, have made the switch to African-American, saying it better describes who they are, as opposed to what color their skin is.

"White people don't call themselves . . . white. They call themselves Italian-Americans, or German-Americans. They treat themselves as if they have a heritage," said Meldon Hollis, a Baltimore City school board member and talk-show host on WEAA-FM, the Morgan State University radio station. "We're growing to the point that we can speak about Africa with a sense of pride. If we don't say 'Africa,' people can assume we're ashamed of it."

On his talk show, Mr. Hollis said, "overwhelmingly, the sentiment is to call ourselves African-American. Very few of my callers say 'black,' and if they do, they catch themselves." He expects Mr. Rawlings' bill to come up tonight for discussion during his regularly scheduled show, the first since the bill was introduced.

Others observe that "black" and "African-American" have become interchangeable in common usage, and both are considered acceptable.

"The position I have followed is we use African-American and black basically interchangeably," said Racine Winbourne, senior editor of Baltimore's Afro-American newspaper.

The paper's own name, once a commonly used term, has declined in popularity as a designation of a people -- Mr. Rawlings has said he finds it simply confusing because "Afro" on its own isn't specific.

Jerome Taylor, a professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Maryland, said he prefers "African" to "Afro." "I think that it's a positive and constructive [change]. The prefix 'Afro' has been defined in terms of regional or national politics 'N following the cultural revolution of the late '60s. The prefix 'African' has a more global or international reference. It clearly articulates the cultural origins of the people being referred to," he said.

But Ms. Winbourne said the title of her newspaper remains a point of pride, albeit a historical one.

"We've carried this name proudly for 100 years. You have to put it in the context of the times," she said. "When the Afro-American was titled, we were being called things like 'nigger' and anything inhuman. This comes from a time when black people were given no status at all."

The use of "African-American" was given an organized push by such leaders as Rev. Jesse Jackson several years ago. But some activists date the origin of the movement even further back.

Malcolm X advocated its use 30 years ago, said Carl O. Snowden, an Annapolis alderman and civil rights activist. "A person who doesn't know his roots," he quoted Malcolm X as saying, "is like a tree without roots. You're bound to die."

Mr. Snowden and others acknowledge that their communities face larger issues than terminology; still, he said, that doesn't mean people should dismiss the bill and its importance.

"Whenever people are trying to define who they are, that's important," Mr. Snowden said.

Mr. Hollis said: "If you ask how important this is, it doesn't compare to finding jobs, or stopping the shooting on the streets. "Compared to that, you don't give a damn what they call you."

As for where the "African-American" issue falls in the hierarchy of current issues, Ms. Winbourne offers this: Instead of taking an editorial stance on Mr. Rawlings' bill this week, she addressed three more pressing topics -- Mayor Kurt Schmoke's backing off from school closings, another delegate's proposal on how to cut down on the homicide rate and the Martin Luther King holiday.

While the bill won't cost anything to put into effect, some constituents think the legislators' time could be better spent elsewhere.

"I can't see the reason for it. I oppose it. I don't like it. They can do something else with their time," said Wanda Reid, a seamstress.

Her preference? "I prefer 'Negro.' I'm not black, and I've never been to Africa -- even though if I did, I probably would have stayed there," she said.

For others, well, it simply doesn't matter. "It don't make no difference," said Etta Lewis, 68, a retired domestic worker. "That's the way I feel."

Spencer H. Holland, director for the Center of Educating African-American Males at Morgan State University, believes it matters, especially for the youth -- and thus, the future.

"It gives our children a handle that we didn't have," he said.

"When we were growing up, it was considered shameful to be called African, in the jungle and everything."

Furthermore, the term "African-American" is significant in that it -- unlike "colored," for example -- is self-generated rather than imposed, he said.

"It's an attempt by people who have been disenfranchised to define themselves," Mr. Holland said, "and put themselves in a historical context."

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