I have a confession. I have a list of words I avoid using. They turn me off, whether or not they are italicised or direct quotes. They range from "civilised" to Americans' blind use of "race" to the French pronoun "tu."
On top of my list today is "black" – not the colour which I find beautiful. I resent being called black. I find it offensive and the continued dehumanisation of people of African origin in the United States and across the world is partially a result of this label – and ending it is as significant as taking down the confederate flag.
The term "black" or, to use its Spanish translation, "negro" did not enter everyday speech corrupted. In fact, in its Indo-European origin, scholars will tell you, "black" (which meant fire, shining white, or flashing in various bright colours) was dry in negative association and without racial connotations.
But for the past 400 years since the arrival of the first Africans from the Ndongo region of the Kongo Kingdom in the British colony of Jamestown in 1619 in what would become the US, it has taken on a darker meaning and became the preferred European way to refer to us. This was neither accidental nor an accident.
In fact, imperialism and colonialism could not have become established as European institutions if we were called African. It’s a bold, some would say simplistic, statement and I make it for a good reason.
Labels are powerful. They can express or reinforce a positive social identity, and they can also activate hostility.
Depicting or labelling one’s perceived opponent negatively has throughout history been a pre-requisite for tragedy or crimes of an international nature. In Nazi Germany, Jews were portrayed as subhuman. Before that, in Leopold’s Congo, locals were called "indigene" or backwards. In Rwanda in 1994, Tutsis were called "cockroaches" by their Hutu killers. And the Rohingya in Myanmar are pejoratively called "Bengali."
The same logic applied in the heyday of imperialism. Africans had to be dehumanised in European society to facilitate their enslavement, colonisation and exploitation of their land; hence the label "black" because calling them African (or in their Yoruba, Benga, Shanti, Igbo, Mandinka or Kongo names) recognises their humanity, history, culture and heritage.
Throughout much of the last 400 years, to keep African people in a subordinate position, the term "black" or "noir" in European politics, literature or popular culture has been used both literally and figuratively to mean anything and everything nasty, evil, terrible, dreadful. God and anything pure and innocent or right is 'white'.
These negative attributes have not only tortured the self-concept, self-esteem or progress of the African people in the US, Europe and across the world; they have also, consciously or subconsciously – for the past 400 years, shaped the mind, views, assumptions and prejudices of our neighbours, colleagues at work, teachers in school, potential employers, media and the police.
This is why black lives still do not matter; even when "black" is used to bring attention to the plight of African American in Sanford, Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island. And in parts of London and Britain, "stop and search" is overwhelmingly targeted on "black" men; judges often hand black men harsher sentences, and teachers in school tend to gear their black students towards music or sport.
You see a similar vein of bias even in global politics. I can still recall an exchange I once had with a respectable US diplomat over the world’s silence on the wars that have killed over 6 million people in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
His response was simple and disarming. The world does not care, he said, because you are "black", and concluded by saying: "I might not have observed that if I had not spent over five years in two different ambassadorial assignments in Africa. But having done so, I say what now seems obvious to me with confidence and sorrow."
This debate is not new. Indeed the word negro only receded in oral and printed use as recent as 1989 when Reverend Jesse Jackson’s campaign a year earlier made it more vulnerable to criticism. Yet, strangely, black continues to be used, almost without objection.
Media houses use it in oral or written expressions. Politicians toss it around, sometimes inoffensively. Comedian, novelists, poets, artists, academics – and even leading figures in African communities in the US, Europe, the Caribbean and elsewhere – use it interchangeably with African, African American or Afro–Caribbean. Other self-label themselves as means of conveying some sort of sense of solidarity within and between former colonised, oppressed or enslaved communities.
For me, "black" and "negro" are two sides of the same coin. They are inherently derogatory labels – imposed on Africans to discredit their humanity and to boost a false sense of white superiority. There is no other way around it. And whichever way you look at it, to continue to call us by labels we were called in plantations and its after-party is at the very least immoral – if not racist, unexamined as it might be.
We are not black. No "black" or "negro" has ever existed in Africa. We are Africans.
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