Obama’s Blackness: Illuminating differences between African-Americans and Blacks in the U.S.


December 24, 2007

Obama’s campaign for presidency has caused an uproar within Black society in reference to his blackness and if he’s “black enough,” causing the discussion regarding the differences between African Americans and other Blacks in the United States to reach a level like never before.

For decades, the terms African American and Black have been naturally used interchangeably, side by side, and one of the same – basically as synonyms.  Instinctually, we all are guilty of using the terms interchangeably because society has labeled all Blacks African American.  But are they really the same?

No, as stated by many Black scholars and others, claiming that there is a difference and the terms stand alone.

In the words of author/journalist Gary Younge, in his “Is Barack Obama black enough?” article in March 2007, he explains the differences:

“African-American, a term which entered regular usage in the late 80s, refers to a particular ethnic experience of black Americans of African descent. Black refers simply to Americans of African descent, which includes black immigrants from the Caribbean, Africa and Latin and South America. All African-Americans are black; but not all black Americans are African-American.”

Confused?  In clarity, by this definition, African American is designated to those who descended from West African slaves, meaning those who were brought to the U.S. when slavery was legalized, for they had a particular ethnic experience that other Blacks (like Obama) did not have.

Indeed, Younge’s distinction, which is shared by many, makes a lot of sense and has truth to it, but will be challenged in the latter.

Herein, for better clarification, I will use the terms African American, Black American, Black immigrant as follows:  African American, meaning those native-blacks of West African slaves; Black Americans, meaning those who were born and raised in the U.S., but of West Indian (Caribbean) ancestry and elsewhere in the African diaspora; and Black immigrants, meaning those born in the Caribbean (or any other land) and migrated to the U.S. to obtain citizenship.

Clearly, some African Americans are bothered by the loose usage of the term – African American – because it was only intended for a few due to a specific ethnic experience unrelated to other Blacks.

Professor Chude-Sokei discusses the disparities in his article, “Redefining Black” in February 2007, in conjunction with his argument that Obama is not supported by Black leaders because he is not a real African American – but simply Black American.  In other words, he is an outsider looking in, similar to Black immigrants.

He indirectly argues that Black leaders are afraid to trust Black immigrants, because their views differ (they don’t fight for what they do) greatly from that of African Americans, which causes a separation between Black natives and Black immigrants.  There is no argument with this belief because people do hold different views and rightfully so.  Just because native-born Blacks believe strongly in a position and fight for many causes, it doesn’t mean that Black immigrants have to share those same beliefs.  People are independent thinkers, at least some are.  They don’t have to bow down to demagogues – politicians/community leaders in general – who claim to be serving the people while simultaneously filling their pockets with money.

To further his position of the differences and untrustworthiness, Chude-Sokei cites a prominent Black figure:

“People identified former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s Jamaican ancestry as the quality that made his blackness different.  When in the mid-1990s it seemed possible that he would run for president, the pride of the Caribbean immigrant community was nearly palpable.  He emboldened Caribbean immigrants to resist African American pressures to erase their own cultural and historical distinctiveness.”

Is his Jamaican ancestry (note that he was born in the U.S.) really a problem which puts his blackness in question or his many accomplishments, especially politically?  The latter is clearly obvious.  If Powell had no Jamaican heritage, native Blacks would still consider him not black enough because he is a powerful figure, who is approved by many whites – and have different views.  In regard to the claim that he empowered Caribbean immigrants to preserve their culture, is that problematic?  Why should people abandon their cultural uniqueness and conform to another?  It just doesn’t make sense and renders nonsense.  Their job is to assimilate to a new environment while keeping their cultural norms.

Like Obama, some native Blacks view Powell as an outsider – even though he was born in the U.S., because he served for quite sometime (2001-05) in the Bush Administration, embraced his Jamaican ancestry, and associated with whites.  Outrageously, some even called him white when he worked alongside Bush and some still do.

Chude-Sokei states other distinctions:

“A good proportion of immigrants tend to be better educated than African Americans, don’t have the “chip” of racial resentment on their shoulder and exhibit the classic immigrant optimism about assimilation into the mainstream culture.”

Black immigrants may not have racial resentment when arriving to the U.S, but it doesn’t mean that they will be ignorant of how white America will depict and treat them because of their skin color.  In fact, some quickly gain resentment toward both African Americans and whites.  Why? Because they are looked upon as inferiors and teased because they are dressed differently and talk differently; some are even called “boat-people” or “boats” – meaning those whose journey to a new land was via boat. There is not one Black person that has not witnessed the abuse and filthy name-calling of a Black person from the islands and/or Africa on a middle school and high school campus from other Blacks.  The black-on-black hatred happens constantly.

Regarding immigrant optimism about assimilation, it would make all the sense for a person who comes to a new country to demonstrate such optimism because that’s the only way he or she will survive.  It would be foolish and a disservice to come to a new country and not try to adapt to new customs and the ways of living.  America is dubbed the land of opportunity for a reason, which explains why Black immigrants come to the U.S.  They want a better life and want advancement in their lives, not all but majority.

With the large amount of Black immigrants and those who continue to arrive, some African Americans feel as if they are given more significance and opportunities, especially in higher education as Chude-Sokei alludes to:  

“…a shifting academic terrain in which traditional black studies are threatened by increasingly popular courses and programs that have a diaspora or Africana slant and do not put African American history or experiences center stage.”

Yes, this may be true, but to blame immigrants for the number of other black courses that “threatens” and don’t prioritize on African American history is absurd.  Traditional black studies at Universities may be threatened because African Americans themselves don’t feel the need to take such courses because it will not advance their career goals.  Black students, as a whole, usually take such courses as electives to fill a void in their credits.

Some African Americans fail to realize that administrators may feel the need to keep the Black Studies Departments active by adding a few black courses with an African twist, because they view all Blacks as one for having African descendants.

This thinking troubles many including author Debra Dickerson who stated the following in her 2007 “Colorblind” article:

“Lumping us all together … erases the significance of slavery …”

Erases the significance of slavery?  White America has been doing that for decades.  In fact, it’s the educational system that tries to erase and lessen the significance of slavery because it’s not fully discussed or given priority in high school history classes.  The only time Black history is taken seriously in school is in February, Black History month.  In addition, slavery will never be forgotten; it was a major operation that was practiced nefariously, not only in the U.S. but worldwide which yielded persecutions and a plethora of murders.  Events of such magnitude can never be erased.  It is etched in U.S. History, so the “lumping together ” argument is questionable.

In general, Blacks have been lumped together by America since 1977.  But in 1997, the term for Blacks (African American or Black) was officially revised and categorized as follows:  A person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa.  Most Federal offices share similar definition, from the United States Census Bureau to the U.S. Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The one-drop rule was also practiced, meaning if a person had a single drop of “black blood,” he or she was considered Black/African American – regardless of their biracial and multiracial complexities.

This issue of the term African American makes great conversation, but when analyzed from a broader perspective, it’s trivial.  It’s crystal clear that all Blacks are not the same and did not share the same histories, for Blacks come from different backgrounds. Yes, African Americans had a particular ethnic experience that other Blacks did not experience.  Thus, native-born Blacks are different from those of the Caribbean, Africa, and elsewhere.  But is it not possible for a native-born Black to share similar lineage with a Caribbean Black, and connected by West African slaves?  Or is that not possible?  If that is so hard to believe by some, then understand the obvious:  all Blacks share one commonality – African ancestry.

If people want to be so technical and critical of what “authentic” African American is, I’ll take it a bit further and claim that no one is African American unless he or she was born in Africa.  You do not have the right to claim you are an African unless you are a native of Africa.  What you can argue is your African heritage because we are all extractions of Africa, one way or another.  We all share African descendants in some way, African Americans, Black Americans, and so forth.

In reality, those people who can claim to be Africans are natives like NBA stars Dikembe Mutombo and Hakeem Olajuwon (retired), supermodels Liya Kebede and Alek Wek, just to name a few.  Interestingly, they could also argue that African American in the U.S. are simply Black, similar to how some African Americans argue that Black immigrants are just Black.  Wouldn’t that be intriguing?

Because Africa refers to a continent (while some wrongly call it a country), natives of Africa rarely use the term African American, but use their country of origin to describe themselves, including some Black immigrants.  For example, Dikembe Mutombo, born in Congo, is Congolese-American; Hakeem Olajuwon, born in Nigeria, is Nigerian-American.  People of their likeness would have more claim of the term because they were actually born in Africa.

This is what makes the argument of the term rather strange because a case can also be made that no one is really African American unless he or she was born in Africa.

Surprisingly, some African Americans have even argued that a mixed person is not really Black, although they too descended from West African slaves, which presents a paradox and confusion of the term itself.  What these people don’t realize is that no one is 100% Black and all Blacks have a mixture in their line.  It may not show on the outside, but it shows in the DNA.

In fact, studies in genealogy have shown that majority of Black people have African ancestry along with European ancestry (and perhaps other origins), meaning that we all have some white in our gene from far down the line in our lineage.

In all, there is no denying the history of African Americans who are descendants of West African slaves.  Still, it does not give anyone exclusiveness to the term because it can also be claimed by a native-born Black of an African country who migrated to the United States.  Therefore, for people to fight and become agitated for a term that is used to include all Blacks in the U.S. is beyond comprehension.  Defenders of the term claim that it was never intended for all Blacks but solely for those of a particular experience, which is clearly understood.

However, the term African American is really a broader term for all Blacks, since all Blacks have African connection. The terms African American and Black may not be synonyms, but they are related.

Like stated earlier, we all share one commonality – African ancestry – because the continent of Africa serves as a geographic marker of origin for all BLACKS, whether one is of mixed race like Obama, or come from the Caribbean, or elsewhere.


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