“Where are you from?” She asked immediately after I introduced myself. I suppose my American accent was pretty noticeable from the start.
“Oh, America…I’m an exchange student here.” A high school version of me confidently replied.
“No, no, no. I mean…what country are you from?”
“America…Baltimore to be precise.” I replied, thinking she didn’t hear me the first time.
“No, in Africa….Which African country?”
“Well that’s a good question…er, uh, the thing is I don’t actually really know. A lot of them I guess…”
She then smiled, and the probing conversation fortunately developed into something more casual, but I could tell my responses about my identity had confused her. To give you a little more context, when I was in high school, I had been awarded a scholarship to spend a month as an exchange student at a boarding school in England. The woman from the conversation was the mother of a British student of African descent at the school; her son was introducing her to me during her visit during a family weekend.
I honestly loved my time in England, but that awkward conversation often resurfaces in my mind whenever I think about the intersection of my African ancestry and my American identity. This month, for a variety of reasons, that conversation has resurrected itself even more than usual: Fourth of July was only a couple weekends ago, the FIFA World Cup fostered grand expressions of national pride, I’ve been serving as a mentor for international students visiting Amherst, etc.
I think my time in England could be considered the beginning of my struggle with reconciling my American identity with my slave ancestry. So many of the other black students at that English boarding school had a more direct connection with their African heritage, having parents who had immigrated to the UK. On the contrary, like a great deal of Black-Americans (but certainly not all), I knew nothing about the origins of my enslaved black ancestors who came to the New World through the Middle Passage. In the first place, even if I was able to pinpoint specific ancestors and their ethnic or tribal affiliations, I could never identify their national origins: many African nations hadn’t even been developed at that time. And let’s not even mention the likely lack of archival material on the origins of blacks forcibly brought from Africa to American shores.
For centuries, many people of African descent have struggled to make sense of their racial identities in the United States. The terminology they have claimed to refer to themselves and their communities has been used to distinguish themselves as a particular group of Americans, to develop a sense of shared identity to connect their experiences. However, terms for people of African descent in the United States have also been sources of great cross-cultural and political tension.
While I am by no means a world traveler, I think I’ve had my fair share of international experiences. These experiences have helped me come to terms with my American identity. My international friends, travels, and even Amherst College history courses have helped me to become comfortable with my identity as an American. Above all, I’ve made my peace with being a descendent of slaves. I’ve learned to appreciate my country’s values and potential, yet still be critical of its hypocrisies and failures to live up to its ideals.
A few years ago, I remember my uncle getting back a genetic test in the mail. He was seeking to learn more about his African origins, only to realize that genetically he had quite a great deal of non-African ancestry. And after looking up my own surname, “Randolph,” via ancestry.com, I was lead to a detailed, if perhaps slightly unreliable, summary of my European roots:
“English and German: classicized spelling of Randolf, a Germanic personal name composed of the elements rand ‘rim’ (of a shield), ‘shield’ + wolf ‘wolf’. This was introduced into England by Scandinavian settlers in the Old Norse form Rannúlfr, and was reinforced after the Norman Conquest by the Norman form Randolf.”
So, my white ancestors could have been English or German. And it’s pretty cool how my last name basically means “wolf shield” or something like that. Awesome. But that’s not the point. This would possibly make me a descendant of black slaves and their white slave masters. (In case this article is bringing your spirit down a bit, check out this Comedy Central clip to see Key and Peele’s humorous take on slave ancestry in the United States. It’s okay to laugh.)
In light of this, I can definitely understand why some may prefer the term African-American. If you’re descended from Africans and living in America, why not call yourself African-American? More importantly, at the end of the day, our identities are ultimately our own to decide. However, I’d still encourage other American blacks who aren’t directly from Africa to really reflect on the terms they use to identify themselves. Clearly, this reflection does not necessarily have to evolve into a binary-driven choice or debate. In fact, it could begin a constructive dialogue about terminology and self-identification. I think such a dialogue would definitely be worth having for those Americans of African descent.
So, I don’t intend to make an argument about what other black people should call themselves. That would be identity-policing at its finest. If African-American works for you, then more power to you. But I am trying to share my own interpretation of all of these racial/ethnic terms. I’ve been referring to myself as a Black-American almost exclusively recently. Why? The African experience is not my particular experience, nor is it the experience of my parents or grandparents. My experience is an American one.
I’m proud of my African heritage and I’m proud of the history of black people in the United States, but I’ve grown to believe that it is somewhat inauthentic to declare myself as an African-American. There are other students at Amherst College who are actually African. At Amherst, I also know American students with parents who grew up in Africa. I’m not in either of these groups of students. My parents were born and raised in Washington, D.C. Considering the globalization of Amherst and our lives more generally, the term Black-American just makes more sense for me right now.
Indeed, my identity has been molded by my experience as someone of African descent in America. Still, I don’t think I have any direct claim to cultures beyond American borders. I know it can be hard for many slave-descendent Black-Americans to feel patriotic in a country where we may at times continue to feel marginalized, stereotyped, misrepresented and ignored. However, if we’re remembering our African past, we also need to embrace our cultural roots and connections within and throughout this nation in spite of all its complexities and controversies.
Update: After reflecting on one of the comments, I have received permission to remove a speculative portion of the article (preserved below). I do not know enough to comment in depth on how my black ancestors received their last name.
“Regardless, one of my male ancestors probably tragically had that last name forcibly placed on him, symbolically erasing his cultural connections to Africa, binding his identity to the Western World. Furthermore, on both my paternal and maternal sides, many of my female ancestors likely had non-consensual sexual relations with their white male masters throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, explaining the light skin tone of my family.”