Black Identity and the Power of Self-Naming

Kill the Bill IV Protest in London, England, UK on May 29, 2021 (Loredana Sangiuliano, Shutterstock)

Black identity is the most political social identity used to identify people of African descent in the United States. The 1960s constitute a linchpin moment that recreated what it meant to be Black in the United States, tethering pre-1960s derogatory perceptions of blackness as an adjective and post-1960s use of Black to denote peoplehood, pride, and power. Black activists in the 1960s and 70s redefined and recreated what it meant to be Black in the United States. Their efforts demanded dignity and human respect for people of African descent. Being Black was about the right to be self-naming, self-defining, self-determining, and exercising individual and collective agency. This is consistent with current uses of Black in organizations such as in Black Lives Matter, Black Youth Project 100, Afrikan Black Coalition, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, and Institute of the Black World 21st Century to name a few. And yet, many still use a lowercase “b” when referring to Black people. 

Being Black is more than a descriptor which is denoted with the lowercase “b.” A Black identity is a self and collectively conscious effort for people of African descent to be self-naming and self-defining in route to increasing the human respect and dignity of African people and their descendants. The racialized identifier has its origins in the scientific racism of the 18th and 19th centuries, but the ever-changing socio-historical and political context of the 60s redefined and recreated what it meant to be Black in America. Ultimately, when referring to people of African descent as a collective racialized cultural group, like other proper nouns, give them their respect and dignity by capitalizing the “B”. 

Although “Negro” was the radicalized political identifier used by people of African descent in the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century, by the beginning of the Black Arts, Black Power, and Black Students Movements, “Negro” referred to “sell-outs” and “Uncle Toms” from the vantage point of many Black youth activists. These derogatory terms referred to a person of African descent believed to be conspiring or aligned politically and or culturally with white society and establishment.  Presently, “African American” and “Black” have largely replaced the terms “Colored” and “Negro,” yet the question of respect continues to be an issue in need of addressing. In 1975, Donald L. Grant and Mildred Bricker Grant explored the names people of African descent have used or been given. They conclude that although there has been no agreement on the term used, people of African descent agreed that whatever the term used referring to the group must be capitalized. In addition, in 1985, Manning Marble, then professor at Colgate University, observed increasing numbers of students writing “Negro” with a lowercase “n” to which he says is a lack of knowledge and understanding of history because at one time the term “Negro” was received the way Black was after the Black Power Movement. For Marable, there is power, value, and respect in racial/ethnic identities. As a result, when speaking and writing about the experiences of African people and their descendants, the name used, even if outdated, must continue to communicate respect for the people by capitalizing the social designation.  

Contemporary scholars and writers have continued to engage the question of identity and terminology. Yaba Blay’s(1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race, continues this discourse when she states that, “capitalization is a matter of reality and respect – respect not only for other people but for myself.” In regards to being Black, she argues, “My identity is important, and therefore I capitalize it.” In 2014, Lori Tharps, “The Case for Black with a Capital B” argues, “Black should always be written with a capital B. We are indeed a people, a race, a tribe. It’s only correct.” Ultimately, being Black was not about color alone, but also self-definition, self-determination, and an affinity towards Black people’s racialized socio-cultural group denoting their peoplehood. Designating Black not simply as an adjective but a proper noun bestows people of African descent human respect and dignity.  

Ultimately, Black activists of the 60s constructed a positive and reaffirming racialized identity developed out of a shared history of racialized experiences for people of African descent. It is the material conditions and lived experiences struggling against exploitative and racist conditions that shape and reshape racial/ethnic identities. People of African descent shape their racial/ ethnic identities by their continued resistance and transformative efforts. This extends to group appellation as the identifier referring to the affinity group reaffirms as well as identifies.  Their peoplehood refers to shared African cultural retention, which is empowering, as well as shared experiences with racism which is oppressive. They were in search of human dignity and respect and consequently constructed identities out of that experience to reaffirm the humanity of African people and their descendants. 

A Black racialized identity is a political construct in the struggle for and against racialized power dynamics and structures. When applied in the 1960s or present context, the ideological diversity among Black people does not negate peoplehood. The language of collectivity illustrated in the use of terms such as “blood,” “brotherhood,” “sisterhood,” “brotha and sista,” “people,” family,” and “fam” suggests a racialized social body politic relating to each other socio-culturally and politically using familial terms.  

This is an important moment psychologically speaking for people of African descent. Consider Martin Luther King, Jr. who stated in 1967, 

As long as the mind is enslaved, the body can never be free. Psychological freedom, a firm sense of self-esteem, is the most powerful weapon against the long night of physical slavery. No Lincolnian Emancipation Proclamation, no Johnsonian civil rights bill can totally bring this kind of freedom. The Negro will only be free when he reaches down to the inner depths of his own being and signs with the pen and ink of assertive manhood his own emancipation proclamation. And with a spirit straining toward true self-esteem, the Negro must boldly throw off the manacles of self-abnegation and say to himself and to the world, ‘I am somebody. I am a person. I am a man with dignity and honor. I have a rich and noble history, however painful and exploited that history has been. Yes, I was a slave through my foreparents, and now I’m not ashamed of that. I’m ashamed of the people who were so sinful to make me a slave.’ Yes, yes, we must stand up and say, ‘I’m black, but I’m black and beautiful.’ This, this self-affirmation is the black man’s need, made compelling by the white man’s crimes against him. 

While attacking and addressing the material conditions that race and racism produced, it is equally important to rectify the lasting psychological and cultural trauma affecting communities of Black people. Individual and collective self- image and self- worth motivates the Black activists to redefine and rename people of African descent. A gender analysis reveals King’s reference to Black men, and not Black women. A practice all too common at the time, and yet when current scholars and thinkers engage the spirit of the argument, his assertion applies to all Black people across gender, age, ability, religion, etc. Politically, a Black racial/ethnic identity provides a racialized political identity from which to mobilize and organize. Viewing the United States as a racialized environment, redefining one’s individual and collective racialized identity from one of shame and humiliation to an affirmation of pride is a form of resistance. As bell hooks in “Loving Blackness as Political Resistance,” 

Collectively, black people and our allies in struggle are empowered when we practice self-love as a revolutionary intervention that undermines practices of domination. Loving blackness as political resistance transforms our ways of looking and being, and thus creates the conditions necessary for us to move against the forces of domination and death and reclaim black life. 

Essentially, the very act of struggle to address the impact and legacy of race and racism is revolutionary. When individuals and communities love themselves to the point of exercising their agency to address wrongs, misinformation, exploitation, and distortions in their myriad of possibilities, they participate in acts of self and collective love. Given the realities of racialized intergenerational trauma, the act of struggling for improved human respect and dignity and elevated quality of life is therapeutic. Hence, the most political racial/ ethnic identity people of African descent have ascribed to is a Black identity and the “Black” must be capitalized recognizing their humanity and right to be self-naming and self-defining.

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M. Keith Claybrook, Jr.

M. Keith Claybrook, Jr. is an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach where he teaches classes on history, the social sciences, and critical thinking. His research interests include the history of Black Los Angeles, the Black Freedom Movement, the Black Student Movement, 21st Century Black student activism, 21st Century Pan Africanism, Reparations, and Hip Hop. He is the author of Building the Basics: A Handbook for Pursuing Academic Excellence in Africana Studies. He is currently working on a book manuscript entitled Beyond the Spectacle: The Intellectual Work of the Black Power Era in Los Angeles, 1965-1975.

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