Why Do You Call Yourself Black And African?

Why Do You Call Yourself Black And African?

New African

Carina Ray, Associate Professor of African and Afro- American Studies
Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts

A little over a year ago I received an email with the subject line “Ok I wonder why you call yourself ‘black’ and ‘African’” from a self-described longtime New African reader.  Even if subsequent emails have been less direct in their articulation of the same underlying sentiment, they all point in a similar direction: some people are confused about my racial background and about the way I racially identify myself.  Their need to seek clarification suggests that being able to label me is important to the way in which they understand the content of my columns.

I was perplexed at first by this seemingly sudden preoccupation with my race.  After all I’d been writing for New African for several years and never had anyone raise the subject before. It then occurred to me that these racial enquiries started happening almost immediately after my picture began running with my column.  Obviously there was a disconnect in the minds of some readers between my appearance and my writing, especially when I refer to myself as both Black and African, and use the collective “we” to talk about the past, present, and future of Black people worldwide.

Indeed, the fact that I claim my place in the global African world annoyed one reader so much that he asked, “Why do you keep on writing ‘we’?” Just in case he hadn’t already made his point clear he added, “You are not black in my eyes. You look much more Italian or Spanish. I can assure you, if you go to Africa you will be called ‘white’.” I always find it amusing that people seem to forget the proximity of southern Spain and Italy to Africa.  There is a reason after all that Spaniards and Italians from the south look a lot like North Africans—centuries of exchange between the two regions certainly wasn’t limited to material goods.

Ironically, however, the reader was partially right.  I am ¼ Italian, but I don’t look anything like my blond hair and blue eyed Italian paternal grandmother who came from Turin in the far north of the country.  Nor do I look anything like my paternal Irish grandfather.  The reader wasn’t off the mark either when he guessed I might be Spanish.  My mom is part Spanish. She is also Taíno Indian and African, most likely of Yoruba ancestry, as were many of the enslaved Africans who worked the sugar plantations on the island of Puerto Rico where my mom was born.  So there you have it: Taíno, Spanish, Northern Italian, Irish, and yes, African too.  Why, you might ask, if I am so thoroughly mixed race do I identify as Black and African?

Let me begin by providing the context necessary to understand the particularly unique way in which Black is defined in the United States, where I was born and raised. Black, as a legal-cum-racial category, was historically constructed in the broadest possible way in order to expand the number of people who could be enslaved and to limit the legal right of racially mixed people to claim their freedom.  Known as the “one-drop rule“, the idea that a person with even the slightest trace of African ancestry is Black has long outlived slavery in America.  What was once a legal construction became a socially constructed category that has and continues to encompass a broad range of very phenotypically diverse Black people.  While the racial landscape of the U.S. is home to Black people of all hues, hair textures, body shapes and sizes, and facial features, we do not all experience our blackness in the same way—far from it. Phenotype, class, gender, and geography all play major roles in shaping our individual experiences as Black people in America. Hierarchies based on skin tone, alone, have been at the root of painful divisions within the black community, and are often the basis for preferential treatment within the dominant white society. It has not been lost on African-Americans that if Barack Obama was the complexion of his father he would likely not be our president today…

Read the entire article here.

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