A black is “a member of a dark-skinned people, especially one of African or Australian Aboriginal ancestry.” That is what the Oxford dictionary tells us.
Two words I use that cause the most comment and email are “empire” and “black”. You can go on for ever arguing about such words.
A blog makes it worse because it can be read in any corner of the world, each with its own ideas about these things. And, on top of that, what you write in English is not always read in English. I know my postings have been read in Arabic, French and especially Portuguese.
“Black” is a good example. In Portuguese it becomes preto, but that means something different when applied to people than “black” does in English. Naomi Campbell, for example, is preto, but Halle Berry and Ildi Silva of Brazil are not.
When I am unsure about a word I have a simple way to settle the matter: I look it up in the Oxford dictionary. That is how I chose between Burma and Myanmar. It is not perfect, I know, but if I write in English and use the Oxford dictionary, then more people in more places will understand me than if I use any other language or dictionary. Certainly more than if I follow my own opinions about the meanings of words.
So I use “black” in the Oxford sense. That means both Naomi Campbell and Halle Berry are black, even though Halle Berry in some places would be seen as mixed. That means Ildi Silva too is black even though her own country sees her as mixed.
I am writing in English, not Portuguese, and I must use English words in their English senses.
Does that mean I am applying English ideas to the world? Of course. But it is not just the world “black”: every word in English is like that. And it is not just English, but any language. Even Brazilian Portuguese. For language to work, words have to have particular meanings that are more or less fixed. That means making decisions about how to see the world.
And so what about the word “African American”?
The word “black” does not have a pretty history, but at least it is an honest word. “African American” whitewashes history, it papers over the whole thing about skin colour.
In George Orwell’s book “1984″, the government called its war “peace”, its lies “truth” and knocking in your door at three in the morning to take you away, “love”. Did changing the words make it so? No. Did it make anything better? No. It only cheapened the language, making it harder to think clearly.
After the American slaves were freed, they wanted to be called coloured instead of black. So whites, instead of making signs that said “Blacks Only”, wrote ones that said “Coloreds Only”. The new word did not change their hearts. Nor did Negro, nor will African American.