Archive | April, 2015

Like but Unlike

23 Apr

Researchers and clever people have just discovered a document which shows that the term “African American” is at least 50 years older than we think, appearing in print in 1782. And, as always, if it appears in print, it’s probably already in general use. This finding fascinated me, as “African American” has always fascinated me linguistically. And remember, I speak as a lover of words and meanings, I am no great academic on the subject.


A brief bit of internet research about 1782 in the United States reveals it to be pretty much a year of business for the country – the start of a new bank, a new mint, oh and smack bang in the middle of the Revolutionary War. Money and war, definitely business as usual. This is a time when America is defining itself. When everyone is an immigrant, and proud of it.  How fascinating that in the midst of this an African American is giving sermons. Back in the 18th Century, anyone giving sermons would need to be pretty educated. Who are you, “The African American”? I want to know your tale.

African American


But I digress, I am here to look at the phrase “African American”. African American is at once inclusive, and exclusive. It simultaneously declares “Yes, American” and “But not American”. That qualifier, that “African”, is an instant othering tool. There was a time when many of these terms abounded – Irish American, Italian American, Asian American. All of them implying, of course, that there is somewhere, probably in Hollywood, or maybe Texas, an American American. The American that needs no adjective.


And see how Irish American and Italian American get countries, while African American and Asian Americans have whole continents attached to them? “Yeah, the Italians aren’t quite white enough for us, but they’re ALMOST white enough”…And while Irish and Italian Americans can trace their roots, can proudly claim their Irishness or Italianness, African Americans aren’t afforded the dignity of classifying themselves as Ghanaian, Senegalese, Nigerian American, because their route to America was not a voluntary one, and no records were kept of their ancestral roots.


Boy, they must have been spinning when South Americans started moving north. “We can’t call ‘em South American Americans, that’s just daft!” “But how will people know they’re not really like us?” I bet the guy who dreamed up Latin American got a raise. Okay, okay, in fact, it was under Napoleon that it was named Latin America, in an attempt to create a bond with continental Europe against Anglo-Saxons. In fact, back then, North Americans were Anglo-Saxon Americans. Even Native American others – and, as was pointed out eloquently in “Inventing the Indian”, is a supremely absurd linguistic construction because the land that they are native to was not called America until someone else called it that.


Although we’re not sure who called it that –  the etymological origin of “America” is unclear. For many years it has been accepted that America was named after Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian explorer. But there isn’t a lot of evidence, and indeed some evidence suggests that he named himself after America. There’s another theory that it was named after Richard Amerike, a rich chap who sponsored explorations to Newfoundland. Or possibly it derives from a Caribbean language, and was originally Amerrique. Perhaps it’s best to stick to a rather compelling Urban Dictionary definition of America: “A country that claims the name of an entire continent to itself alone for no compelling reason.”


But let’s go back to African American. Isn’t it odd how you don’t hear much about Italian Americans anymore? Or Irish Americans? Isn’t it odd that a search on Google’s amazing N Gram viewer, which looks at the frequency with which words and phrases are used in printed material, shows an increase in usage of the phrase African American by around 130% in the last 20 years? Partly, of course, this is a good thing. That we are talking more about these issues. That there is more being said about African Americans. Especially, I hope, BY African Americans.


But part of me wants to know if, like the Irish and Italians, that African qualifier will ever vanish. 250 years later, black men and women are still not seen as American American. That sucks.