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What Does It Really Mean To Be 'Black American?'
Traveling outside the United States is a reminder for some black Americans that there may be a lot that you don’t know about yourself.
“It’s interesting. When traveling abroad, you realize that you may not be as cultured as you think,” Chantay Jordan, owner of Infinite Prestige Sports and Entertainment, tells Travel Noire over the phone. Chantay, who has visited at least 15 countries on her own, said she often feels a sense of embarrassment when traveling abroad, especially when “that question” is asked.
The exchange usually goes something like this:
*A local notices her accent*
Local: “Where are you from?”
Chantay: “I’m from the states.”
Local: “Where are you originally from?”
Chantay: “I’m from Ohio.”
Local: *Blank Stares* “Where are you from originally?”
Local: No, where are your parents from?
At this point in the line of questioning, Chantay realizes that the person is referring to her family’s origins. And the truth is, for many black Americans, it is not a simple answer. The country’s history of slavery has everything to do with it. Records were destroyed during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, families were torn apart, and many slaves took on the last name of their slave owners.
Yet, despite these factors outside of her control, the question gives Chantay feelings of embarrassment and guilt.“You definitely feel some kind of way,” she says. “I mean I recognize that it’s not our [black Americans] fault that we don’t know, but you have to do your due diligence.”
Part of that obligation is researching to the best of your ability, according to Chantay. It’s part of the reason why she decided to discover her roots using tools like 23andMe and Ancestry. “I found out I was 56 percent Nigerian and now I want to know what tribe,” Chantay stated. “I’m happy I did it especially when there are people out there always trying to make the assumptions for me.”
To those outside of the United States, the assumption is that blacks know their origins and when they are unable to answer the aforementioned question, they are sometimes looked upon and dubbed as “ignorant” or “uncultured.” But that’s not the case for the more than 47 million people who identify as African-American in the United States.
The ugly truth, according to Chantay, is that those records were destroyed and there’s just simply no way of knowing exactly where your origins stem from without genealogical testing.
Author Arnold Burks, however, warns that DNA tests are a threat to African-Americans because they already have a fragile identity. “DNA tests (genetic admixture tests, more specifically) are reliable only a few hundred years back,” he stated. “So how do DNA tests break down 200,000 years of ancestry into a 100% scale? The answer is, they don’t. You have thousands (probably millions) of ancestors. Modern science hasn’t developed yet to the point where they can trace your full ancestry.”
So What Does It Means To Be ‘Black American’ In The U.S.?
There was a time in the U.S. when identifying as African-American meant acknowledging the country’s past of slavery and those checking off that identity box were implicitly referring to themselves as a descendant from those who survived the Transatlantic Slave Trade. But as the number of African and Caribbean blacks who migrate to the United States increases, it means that more people who are first and second generation immigrants won’t fit so neatly into that “African-American” box.
In an article titled, “Who is an ‘African-American’? Definition evolves as USA does,” the author posed the question, “Does that category (“African-American”) include people like the model Iman and the singer Rihanna — born in Somalia and Barbados, respectively — or can only those whose family trees were violently uprooted and replanted on U.S. soil hundreds of years ago claim that designation?”
The answer is complicated, according to Clarion Ledge Columnist Rachel James-Terry.
“What it means to be an African-American in the U.S. means that you have a whole separate set of limitations designed for you that can levied at any time.” Rachel continued, “I think ‘African-American’ means adaptation. “It’s recognizing who we were before we came here as slaves, who we became as slaves, and who we are now coming out of slavery.”