Since the arrival of Africans on American soil, there have been a series of floating labels to describe them. They went from “African,” to “Negro,” then to “colored,” back to “Negro,” onward to “Afro-American,” landing on “black,” and parking on “African American.” With the never-ending progression from title to title, it’s hard to believe that we will see an end.
In our country’s early days, black slaves and freemen were both referred to as “Africans.” The name “African” was incorporated into the titles of many churches and institutions like the Free African Society and the African Methodist Episcopal Church. A distinction between Africans blacks living in America was deemed necessary, and with the dawn of the 19th century, the Negro was born.
“Negro” was widely used in the Americas until the late 19th century. With the end of slavery, came the end of ties to slave terminology, and “colored” was created. But by the 1930s this new name was tainted with the
images of separate and unequal facilities, such as public bathrooms, restaurants, and hotels.
The Negro was reborn with the hope of representing a generation of people who were raised in freedom. While the sun was rising on this new era, it also provided the light for the civil rights movement. With the arrival of the 1960s “Negro” died, signaling the birth of “Afro-American” and “black.”
“Afro-American” was created to pay tribute to African roots, while embracing the new land. Along with the name were fashion statements such as the “Afro” hairstyle and African dress, such as kente cloth, and dashikis (long traditional robes).
The black power movement ushered in the usage of “black.” People were encouraged to embrace their roots and were told that black is beautiful. An example of this pride would be a statement by Muhammad Ali: “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize, but get used to me. Black, confident, cocky.” Ali’s attitude was representative of many blacks in America.
During the 1970s, “black” became the sole term used when referring to Americans of African descent. In the late 1980s, Jesse Jackson and other community leaders popularized the term “African American.” Television commentators and news columnists, both black and white, soon jumped on the bandwagon and the term became wide-spread.
From Africa to America, people of color have evolved in name. As of today, there is no uniform name. Some people still use “Negro.” Some use “African American.” For most, “black” still endures.