An African is someone from the continent of Africa. That sounds like a simple, straightforward fact of geography, but the strange thing is, it is not that simple.
Here is a list of people and the present-day countries where they were born along with their race or ethnicity. Which of these do you count as African? Why or why not?
- Alek Wek (Sudan) – Dinka
- Anwar Sadat (Egypt) – Arab
- Augustine (Algeria) – half Berber, half Roman
- Camus (Algeria) – white French
- Cleopatra (Egypt) – Greek and Egyptian
- Hannibal (Tunisia) – Carthaginian
- King Tut (Egypt) – Egyptian
- Malcolm X (USA) – black American
- Marcus Garvey (Jamaica) – black Jamaican
- Naomi Campbell (Britain) – black and Chinese Jamaican
- Nelson Mandela (South Africa) – Xhosa
- P. W. Botha (South Africa) – white Afrikaner
- Phillis Wheatley (Senegal) – ???
- Sade (Nigeria) – half Yoruba, half white British
- Serena Williams (USA) – black American
All these people were either born in Africa or are at least part African by blood – or both. But despite that there are only two that most in America would agree are African without doubt: Alek Wek and Nelson Mandela, the only ones who are both pure black and born in Africa. The rest are, at best, African In The Technical Sense.
Why is that?
Because the Western view of the world has been screwed up by the Transatlantic slave trade and what followed.
By the 1700s the slave trade had led to a self-serving racism among Europeans that saw Africa as a backward land of savages. The rise of white rule in Africa in the 1800s made that view even more necessary.
To maintain this fiction the civilizations in northern Africa that Europeans knew all too well, like those of the Ancient Egyptians and the Arabs, had to be seen as not “truly” African. They became a part of Technical Sense Africa. The “true” Africa started somewhere further south where the well-known facts were fewer and easier to deny.
Meanwhile those who were taken as slaves were made to forget about Africa: they were made to give up their names, their languages, their religions and so on. They were cut off physically too: few were ever able to return.
Blacks in America were still calling themselves “Africans” in the 1700s, but in the 1800s that had changed to “negro”, “coloured” and “black”. They were forgetting the Africa they once knew and in its place was put the Africa of white racists – that land of naked savages. Africa became a shameful place – calling yourself “African” was now unthinkable. You can see the side effect of that in the very first word of this paragraph.
“African” made something of a comeback in America in the late 1900s with the term “African American”. That only became possible because blacks started to learn the facts, not the half-truths, about Africa and could begin to take pride in it once again. But even so, unlike Irish or Italian Americans, most still feel the need to add the “American” after “African”.
- stereotypes about Africa
- The blackness of Africa
- Names for blacks:
- Transatlantic slave trade
- The white lens
- internalized racism
- This history of black history
- race conscious