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What Is Kwanzaa? Day Two: Celebrating Kujichagulia
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Happy Kujichagulia! Day two of Kwanzaa focuses on the concept of African Americans defining ourselves, naming ourselves, creating for ourselves, and speaking for ourselves. As promised, I want to focus on the concept of naming ourselves.

The naming process of those who we now know as African Americans has been quite a tedious and drawn out process. It has, however, come with great strife and a large degree of gnashing of teeth… and yes, I do mean that literally. First references to us in this country, aside from “slave”, were most likely “negro”. That term, of course, has taken on much coarser terms since then.

Sometime around the colonial era, the term “colored” began to be used. As a child in the 60s, I recall asking what was so terrible about that term. Aside from the fact that it is yet another instance of African Americans not determining for themselves what they would like to be called, it is also inaccurate. A friend once told me “We were born this way! It sounds like someone took a crayon and ‘colored’ us in!” After thinking about it, I decided that it did sound that way… Oddly, that was what my mother would often do on greeting cards to make sure that I saw images that reflected those that I was surrounded by. She always kept a supply of shades of brown on hand…

In the naming of African Americans, it must also be understood that capitalization of the term imparts a great deal of respect. I recall Sometimes the way white people would even say “that black was in line” instead of “that black person” or even “that black guy” often caused me to cringe. You don’t hear it being said much like that anymore, but I know I felt a lot more connection with the term Black when that was used in the 80s and early 90s.

I just felt like Blackness was more than a race or an ethnicity. I felt like it was a feeling, a song, a rhythm, a spirit. But I must say that I really did notice a difference between the capitalized version of the term versus the non-capitalized version. With the capitalized version, I do not at all feel any negative feelings based on the word, but instead, to me it imparts a regal feeling.

I remember vividly when I was in college and the shift from the general vague terminology “Black” moved toward the term “African American”. Wow… did my mother have problems with that one! Indeed, there ARE two sides to this coin.

1. If this terminology should be imparted, it should extend to everyone whose lineage is more than four generations deep.

a. First of all, there was such a large degree of racial mixing that many whites would be quite surprised to learn that they are also “African American”

b. Scientifically, most agree that modern man evolved from Africa, so would that not make all “Americans African American”?

2. There do exist African Americans in the country whose ancestors were never slaves and never did reside in Africa. Indeed, my studies in college and those of Marcus Garvey taught of Pan-Africanism, or the Africanism of individuals around the planet.

3. This does some degree of disservice to Africans who are new to this country and are indeed African Americans. Many such individuals do not claim Blacks from America because we have no concept of their cultures, languages or ways of life.

4. Africa is such a wide and diverse place! It is the largest continent on earth and is made up of many countries of varying language, religion, race and ethnicity. I had a friend in college who was from Egypt, very fair skinned with long dark hair. She often made us laugh with her stories of how few people accepted her calling herself a true African American!!!

If I were asked which terms I would prefer, I recall the term of “Afro-American” which was used in the 70s. Ok… banish all thoughts of the superfly hairdo. ;) As with the term African American, it means “a person whose ancestors were born in Africa”. However, it seems to lend more toward those who were born in this country rather than taking from those who actually were born in Africa. This however, is another example and opportunity we have had to name ourselves.

Out of respect and deference, I have and will continue to use the term “African American” however. Remembering the Kwanzaa concept of Umoja/Unity, sometimes, we need to learn to agree to disagree. In the spirit of Kugichagulia, the process of naming ourselves requires one name for us all.


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