Hold the Hyphen

Illustration for article titled Hold the Hyphen

Black Americans can bask in the glow of a newfound progressiveness this Black History Month. And our first black president also happens to be our first African-American president. Black and African-American—I can’t help dwelling on those two descriptors and the weight they carry in defining us.


I’m brown, thank you. But I’ll settle for black. It’s more than semantics. It’s semasiology. Once upon a time, we were niggers, coloreds, Negroes and then Afro-Americans. And so I understand the need for some blacks to refer to themselves as African-American, sort of. They want to feel connected to a population reflected in their own faces.

In America, racism is like a water spot on silverware at a cheap diner; it just won’t go away. And just when you think you can breathe a little, the three-headed monster rears its ugly head to remind you who you are, where you live and the inescapable reality of what your skin color represents in this society.

Black people have shaped the United States through culture and science and the civil rights movement––yet as an aggregate we still face more injustice and inequality than any other group of Americans. As a nation, as a people and as a society we’ve come a long way, but in terms of racial equality there is much left to do.

I am constantly searching for answers as to how my café-au-lait self fits into an overwhelmingly white world. But the use of the word African conjoined with American leaves me empty. There are 54 countries in Africa. Which one would be mine?

I have a friend whose father is Nigerian and mother is black American, which makes her literally African-American. But she refers to herself as black.

I’m American. Period. I’ve never been to Africa. I hope to visit one day, but I also want to visit Europe. Not because I have the blood of English, Irish and Scots running through my veins, but because I’m interested in traveling to new places, seeing and experiencing new cultures and people.


Most black Americans are of mixed-race heritage, which manifests itself in different ways in our external appearance. Some of us are light enough that we look white; others dark as coal. But we are Americans.

I know as much about Africa as I do the metric system, the Euro or the discord in Gaza. What I do know is that Africa, like America, has its challenges related to race and ethnicity, politics, economics and education. Rwanda is still working through the effects of the 2004 genocide; civil wars rage in Congo, Darfur and Sudan; Malaria and AIDS are robbing babies of their lives, and in 28 countries, genital mutilation of young women is considered an acceptable practice.


And for black Americans, it is disheartening that for most of us the trail back to Africa goes cold at a plantation or tenant farm somewhere in the American South.

Beyond that we can only speculate about which country, which tribe or which language we might have been linked to if the transatlantic slave trade had never happened. But we will never really know. Rather than romanticize over DNA tests, we should step back and take stock of the richness of life that our ancestors created for us on this continent. All of it was built from nothing but their blood, sweat and determination to overcome horrific circumstances.


There is nowhere to go back to. Our home is here. It’s called America, and we are Americans.

Jennifer E. Mabry is a writer living in Colorado.