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African American

African American (1988) is a term for blacks in America, those native-born Americans who look at least part African. Although “black” is still the common word, “African American” has become the politically correct term, the one it is always safe to use in mixed company.

Not everyone who is black in America is an African American. The word does not apply well to foreigners, especially those from the West Indies or even Africa itself, strangely enough.

Maybe I travel in the wrong circles, but of the people I know, most who use the term are white Americans with university educations. They seem more comfortable with it than the word “black”. It fits in with their colour-blind racism, which looks at American society as if skin colour no longer matters – all the while looking down on dark-skinned people!

I know there are blacks who use the word, like Barack Obama. And I know the word is a way to show pride in Africa. But because I mainly hear it in the mouths of well-to-do whites, for me it has come to mean something like “those poor people who cannot help being screwed up because they were born black”. And it is said in a way as if the word was too good for them, like a poor man in a Brooks Brothers suit. It has become a white euphemism for black.

So it is not a word I use.

Although it has been in use for 20 years it is not about to take the place of “black”.

For example, Mildred Loving died last month, so there have been plenty of stories about her in the news. If you search the Internet for “Mildred Loving” and “black woman” you get 20,400 pages. But if you search for her name with “African American woman” you get only 871 pages. That is less than 5%. The word “black” is 20 times more common. (“Negro woman” gives you 65 pages and “colored woman”, 10).

Even the ever-so-politically-correct New York Times called her a black woman. The Economist found a way to avoid calling her either.

The idea behind the word is that just as those whose families came to America from Italy are called Italian Americans, so those whose families came from Africa are called African Americans. So far, so good. But there is a difference because of the One Drop Rule: someone who is only one-eighth Italian would not be called Italian American unless his family name was Italian. But most people who are one-eighth African or more are called African American – even if they are mostly European by blood!

That is because African American is not an honest word. Blacks in American society still function as a race, like it or not, but this word tries to hide that fact.

But what if everyone used the word? Would that help to make them colour-blind? Not likely: after 20 years all it has done is help to make people into colour-blind racists.

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thecolorpurpleEbonics (1600s- ) or Black English is what the Wikipedia calls African American Vernacular English (AAVE), meaning the street English of blacks in America. Since the 1940s much of American slang has come from Black English, some of it becoming part of Standard English, like put down, corny and cool.

Ebonics is different than Standard English. Standard English is the English you learn at school, the kind you find in books. It is universal: it is the same the world over – in America, Britain, Nigeria, Jamaica, India, even China. That is what is so great about it.

But Standard English is not “natural”. It started in the 1400s in the government offices in London. It has spread by education and books, especially the King James Bible. It was heavily affected by Latin. It did not become a common way of speaking among white Americans till the 1800s. With the rise of public education they were taught that it was good English, that anything else was bad.

It was good only in the sense that it was universal, but otherwise it was no better than any other English in terms of grammar, beauty or its power to express thought and feeling.

Black English, certainly, is just as powerful and often far more beautiful. But you cannot use it everywhere because not everyone understands it and many, both black and white, will think you lack education or even intelligence.

Black English is not an unlettered form of White English. It is not that simple.

When blacks were brought to America from Africa as slaves they spoke to their masters and each other in a very simple form of English called pidgin English. Many slaves spoke pidgin Wolof too. Wolof was the language of an old empire in Africa. It died out in America in the 1700s, but some of its words have lived on, like banana, honky, guy, bug out, hip (cool), dig (understand) and maybe even wow.

Slaves born in America knew only pidgin English. They made it into a full language known as Creole English. Unlike a pidgin, it has the full power of ordinary English.

Creole English used English words, mostly, but put them in a different and simpler order. It had  more tenses too. It was very much like the Jamaican patois you hear on the streets of Kingston and in some reggae songs.

Creole English became what we know as Black English. Over time it has become more and more like Standard English, something that is still going on.

Nearly all black Americans over a certain age know and understand both Black English and Standard English. Some will use only one or the other, but most will change between them depending on circumstances, something called code switching.

Ebonics made the news in 1997 when Oakland, California wanted to use it to help black schoolchildren learn Standard English. The idea was killed.

– Abagond, 2008.

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Harlem (1658- ), also called Uptown, is the part of Manhattan in New York City just north of Central Park. For much of the 1900s it was, in effect, the capital of black America. Its glory days were in the 1920s during the Harlem Renaissance. The Apollo Theater is there and so is the Cotton Club.

Some streets have been renamed:

  • Martin Luther King Jr Blvd – 125th Street, the main street going east to west
  • Malcolm X Blvd – Lenox Ave, the main street going north to south down the middle of Harlem
  • Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd – 7th Avenue
  • Frederick Douglass Blvd – 8th Avenue

Strivers’ Row, which is 139th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues, has some of the best terrace houses (row houses) in Manhattan.

Harlem was a woods and then farmland. In the 1800s summer homes began to appear, a place to get away from the city. In the 1880s the city itself started to spread into Harlem. At first it was a well-to-do white neighbourhood of Protestants and Jews.

Harlem turned black during the 1920s. It saw a flowering of the arts: the Harlem Renaissance. It became famous for its wild jazz joints along Lenox Avenue where both blacks and whites went. Harlem was still part white in those days. There were even white nightclubs where most blacks could not go, like the Cotton Club.

Blacks came mainly from the South and the West Indies. Some came from the old black neighbourhood on 52nd Street in Midtown Manhattan.

By 1930 Harlem had 225,000 blacks, making it larger than any black city in Africa or the world. But the 1930s brought bad times. The buildings started to fall apart and yet more people arrived. Riots broke out in 1935, 1943 and again in 1964.

In the 1950s and 1960s another wave of blacks came to New York from the South, but this time most moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn and Jamaica, Queens, not Harlem. By the 1960s they each had more blacks than Harlem.

Harlem hit bottom in the 1980s: crack had arrived and property owners were giving up buildings as a lost cause to the city. Most people were poor and black, with Hispanics in the east and the north. There was a small black middle-class.

Most white people were afraid to go to Harlem, even to busy 125th Street in the middle of the day. That level of fear is not based on a sound reading of police reports. It is based on outright fear of blacks. Chinatown seemed worse yet plenty of whites went there.

With rising property values in Harlem since the late 1990s it is no longer as poor as it once was. Parts are even turning white again.

Given how close it is to Midtown Manhattan, Harlem is extremely underbuilt.

You saw Harlem in these films:

  • Shaft (1971, 2000)
  • Claudine (1974)
  • Cotton Club (1984)
  • Mo’ Better Blues (1990)
  • Rage in Harlem (1991)
  • Jungle Fever (1991)
  • New Jack City (1991)
  • Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)
  • American Gangster (2007)

– Abagond, 2008. 

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The black middle class in America (1865- ) is made up of those black families who own their own homes. Some say it is made up of those who have a university degree or own a small business. For the most part it comes down to the same thing.

About half of all black Americans are now middle class.

Because so many poor blacks live at the doorstep of the American media machine, in New York and Los Angeles, many whites have this picture of blacks as being mainly poor. They would be in utter shock if they drove through some of the all-black middle class suburbs of, say, New York or Atlanta.

It is a part of America you rarely see on television or in films, yet it is one of the most notable changes that has taken place in the country in the past 50 years.

There has been a black middle class since at least the 1860s when the slaves were freed. Most blacks were poor back then but they still needed undertakers and barbers, ministers and teachers.

The black middle class was small until the 1960s. After that it started to grow. By the 1980s it had come into its own: “The Cosby Show”, Anita Baker, Terry McMillan and so on. Even Run DMC and LL Cool J, if the truth be told.

A married black couple with university educations makes almost as much money as their white counterparts. But compared to whites they have little money saved – many live paycheck to paycheck – and their houses are not worth as much.

Their houses are worth less for two reasons:

  1. They tend to live in older, but still nice, houses closer to the centre of the city.
  2. A house in a white neighbourhood is worth more than the very same house in a mixed or black neighbourhood.

Most whites live in places where there are only a few black families. If too many blacks start moving into their neighbourhood, whites start moving out in increasing numbers. After a point only the old people are white while almost all the children are black. In time the whole neighbourhood becomes black.

Most whites do not want to live near too many blacks, even middle class ones. Among other things, they see them as bringing in crime and lowering the value of their homes.

A common idea is that the black middle class has sold out, that they are acting white, that they are not black enough. That is what the hopelessly square Carlton in the television show “Fresh Prince” is all about.

A sad fact: For every 100 black women who have a university degree, only 70 black men do. That means nearly 30% of them will never marry: most men are not willing to marry a woman who makes more money than they do and most white men are not willing to marry a black woman, who will give them black babies.


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