The fifth and final part in a series.
They were strangers in a strange land, having traveled by sea thousands of miles away from their native land.
Upon their arrival in Jamestown, Va., in 1619, they were known as Africans. As they assimilated into American society, they would become Negroes who would struggle against being considered three-fifths of a person. Later, as they were allowed American citizenship, they became colored people who couldn’t share the same water fountain as whites. Then they were African Americans, seeking ties to the place they came from, while also acknowledging the place of their birth.
Black people living in the United States have always struggled with identity titles.
History defines them as Africans of the Diaspora – persons who live outside the African continent in the Americas, Caribbean and Europe.
The 53-member-state regional intergovernmental organization, the African Union, defines the term: “The African Diaspora consists of peoples of African origin living outside the continent, irrespective of their citizenship and nationality and who are willing to contribute to the development of the continent and the building of the African Union.”
While Africans of the Diaspora have a common ancestry, it is along the lines of nationalities and cultures that the key commonality is blurred. There is often dialogue between those of the Diaspora and those born on the continent. For example, for Alison Crumb, a junior in the School of Communication and Theater, when she visited South Africa in 2002, she wasn’t African enough. She said some South Africans asked her why she thought she was African. So what does it mean to be African or African American?
Dr. Molefi Asante, a Temple professor who helped the university establish the world’s first African American Ph.D. program, moderated a panel discussion at the Student Center in February centered on that very issue.
Asante, who the AU cited as one of 12 top scholars of African descent, said black people in the United States went from being called African, to Negro, to colored, to Afro American, to African American.
But Asante thinks another label change is on the horizon. “It seems to me that we might go back to African,” he said.
Omali Yeshitela, founder and chairman of the African People’s Socialist Party, said everyone of African origin is African and that it was “ridiculous” to think that a person of African descent could be something other than African.
“This notion that you can ‘be African and get off a boat at Jamestown and become a Negro’ is a fallacy,” Yeshitela said. Saying that an African can “come to America and stay there long enough that you will no longer be African” is “the most ridiculous assumption you can find in the world,” he said.
Those comments from Yeshitela came from a Feb. 18 speech he gave at the African American United Fund Center at 2231 N. Broad St.
Yeshitela, who spent four decades advocating the freedom of black people, never used the word “black” to describe people of African origin. “The struggle for us is, first of all, to understand we are African people,” he said. Yeshitela also said people of African descent must not “be ashamed” of being African.
The APSP leader said all of the labels black people use to describe themselves has divided African people. Terms such as “American” and “Nigerian” are just legal-citizenship terms, and therefore, all people of African origin should identify themselves as “African,” Yeshitela said, implying there is no other correct way black people can refer to themselves as. “Our primary task has to be the liberation and unification of Africa and African people.”
At the Student Center panel discussion, Asante said the racial term “African American” may be too broad and that “African of the United States” might be more appropriate to describe U.S. citizens of African descent. “American is nothing more than your passport; it’s your citizenship,” he said, citing the rhetoric of Malcolm X and other black leaders.
Asante also questioned those in attendance whether being African American is a biological or historical fact. Is one born African American, or does one become one?
Mawata Dunbar, a panelist and vice president of the Organization of African Students, said, “Unless you’re born on the continent, you’re not African.” She added: “In order to be African, you have to take the initiative to know what that means.”
Brittany Chance, a sophomore communications major, said in an interview this February that one has to know a culture to claim it as theirs.
Dunbar, a sophomore pre-nursing major who said those statements on the panel, slightly backed away from those comments and clarified her position after other students on the panel and some of the 60-plus students in attendance issued their rebuttals.
She said black Americans could say they are African American, but must emphasize the ‘American.’
“If I say I’m American, I’m denying my African culture,” said panelist Monique Gregory, a senior political science and communications major.
In response to Asante’s question, Gregory said people are socialized into becoming African American. Since the human species evolved in Africa, it would be hard for anyone to say that he or she was not African, Gregory added.
Chantay Thompson, president of Temple’s Progressive NAACP, who was also a panelist, said, “I identify with being African.”
Though American born, “I don’t value American ways,” she said.
“I don’t think you’re necessarily born African American,” said Richard Street Jr., who is a member of the Progressive NAACP.
“I think you’re born American. … I’d say the two are separate,” he said.
But all of the various terms black people use to describe themselves “just cause more separation,” Thompson said.
But according to Asante, a known scholar in African studies, “American is a citizenship, it’s a passport you carry,” he said.
In a January panel sponsored by the Progressive NAACP dedicated to promoting dialogue between cultural organizations on campus, some panelists acknowledged that uniting people of differing cultures is a challenge.
“To overcome the divisions within our cultures, I think it’s tough,” said Jerry Petit-Frere, vice president of the Haitian Student Organization.
“It’s not nice when you’re ignorant of other cultures,” said panelist Wayne Fairclough at the January panel, a senior computer science major and president of the Student Organization for Caribbean Awareness. SOCA is “going to try to reach out to everybody else on campus,” he said, “because it’s a learning process.”
Individuals should take the initiative in learning other cultures, said Alison Crumb in an interview last month.
Crumb, the junior student who visited South Africa, said the only hope people of African descent have in uniting is to learn about each other and be willing to have an open mind. Interaction is key, she said.
APSP Chairman Yeshitela said it is completely feasible for all people of African descent to unite, citing the accomplishments of Universal Negro Improvement Association founder Marcus Garvey, who organized the largest mass movement of black people in his call for global unification of black people in the early 20th century.
But SOCA President Fairclough said unification begins with the individual. “You have to love yourself before you try to love anybody else,” he said.
Last Thursday the Philadelphia Police Department and other city officials held their first advisory council meeting with 14 leaders from the African community.
The meeting was in response to the beating of a 13-year-old Liberian, Jacob Gray, last November in Southwest Philadelphia, an event that brought the issue of tensions between black Americans and African immigrants to the forefront.
The meeting “went very well,” according to Mitchell Spritzler, a police officer working as a liaison to the Police District Advisory Council. Members of the African community around the city “were very receptive” at the meeting, Spritzler said.
“They were very happy; they were very grateful … [and] they received us positively,” he said.
At the meeting, city officials and African leaders “talked about the problems in the African national community,” but its focus was on solutions to forge ethnic and racial unity, Spritzler said. The Police Department, he added, urges the leading Africans in Philadelphia to “tell us what they’d like us to do, and we’ll support them.”
Sulaiman Abdur-Rahman and Charmie R. Snetter can be reached at TempleNews@GMail.com.