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Kicking off Black History Month, Bernice King launched a rehashing of an old debate with a single Tweet on Tuesday. The youngest child of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and CEO of the King Center denounced a term often used by activists, politicians, and journalists.
“I don’t want to be ‘People of Color,’” King tweeted.
For some people it’s a topic that’s long-been settled: “We are all Americans,” some say. Meanwhile, others don’t see the importance of labels period. Yet, for American descendants of enslaved Africans, whose histories, cultures, languages and names were stolen or beaten out of them, self-identity is crucial.
In fact, the struggle for self-identity has long gone hand-in-hand with the struggle for equality and equity in the “Land of the Free.”
From a free people to enslaved chattle
Despite the fragile arguments from conservative politicians who claim American slavery “wasn’t that bad,” part of what made it stand out from slavery in other countries was the brutal way in which slaveholders chipped away at the self-identity of entire generations. A people known as the first kings and queens on the planet were forced into the lowest caste of a new society.
Branded, bought and sold to the highest bidder, enslaved Africans in the U.S. were forced to take the name of their enslavers. Forbidden to use their native languages, and deprived of their unique cultures, enslaved Africans received such inhumane treatment that the term “negro” or “colored” became acceptable even among freedmen.
Even after the Civil War to end slavery, Blacks were still calling themselves “negro.” A people with double consciousness lacked a unifying self-expression of their identity. That is, until an explosive civil rights movement of the 1960s opened the floodgates for a desire to rename themselves.
Redefining Black American identity
Decades ago, nonviolent leaders marched in the streets and militant leaders moved against a racist police system. Meanwhile, descendants of enslaved Africans also began marching to the beat of their own drum through self-expression.
Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael) coined the term “Black Power.”
He captured the importance of self-identity in his 1967 book “Black Power.”
“Many blacks are now calling themselves African-Americans, Afro-Americans or black people because that is our image of ourselves,” he wrote.
“When we begin to define our own image, the stereotypes–that is, lies–that our oppressor has developed will begin in the white community and end there,” he added (“Black Power”, pg. 36).
For decades the new names have stuck, lasting up to today. Yet, with every generation, a diversity of ideas compete for dominance. While some people today prefer “Black”, others prefer ADOS (American descendant of enslaved Africans).
Where did “people of color” come from?
Yet, one phrase that seems to collectively draw annoyance from Black people at large, is the term “People of Color.”
Responding to Bernice King’s Tweet, some people co-signed her distaste for the phrase.
Many share concerns that lumping all non-White people into one umbrella group is problematic. Critics say it dilutes the unique history and contemporary struggles that primarily affect Black people.
Evidently, Americans used the term as far back as 1807, according to NPR.
In a piece of 19th century legislation, “An Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves into any Port or Place Within the Jurisdiction of the United States” applied to “any negro, mulatto, or person of colour.”
Today, activists and academics have re-entered “people of color” into the American lexicon as a catch-all phrase. Some people defended the term on twitter. Users pointed out that it unifies people of different backgrounds who share the experience of discrimination in the U.S., even if different groups experience it in different ways.
A new generation of American descendants of enslaved Africans are exploring their society and self-image. Ultimately, the debate over how to define an entire people will surely continue.