What's in a name?

January 28, 1992

Baltimore Del. Howard P. "Pete" Rawlings has introduced a bill in the General Assembly that would mandate use of the term "African American" in state laws and official documents that make reference to black Americans. Delegate Rawlings argues that "African American" is more appropriate than "black" because it refers to a particular ethnic origin rather than to color and because it reflects black Americans' growing awareness and acceptance of their African heritage.

There has never been universal agreement on how to refer to descendants of people originally brought to this country from Africa as slaves -- an ambiguity that grew out of this country's painful legacy of racial oppression and discrimination. During colonial times, the slaves were called simply "Africans" or "blacks." During much of the 19th and early 20th centuries the terms "colored people," "negro" with a small "n" and "Negro" with an uppercase "N" met with varying degrees of acceptance. ("Negro" is the Anglicized form of the Spanish word negro, which means "black." In Hispanic countries, anyone with a swarthy complexion is negro, but that is another story.)

In the 1960s, prideful identification with the emerging independent nations of sub-Sahara Africa gave new legitimacy to "black" -- this time shorn of any pejorative connotations. Today the cycle appears to have come full circle with the embrace of "African American," which reflects the growing consensus among blacks that taking the African continent as their common geographical point of origin is the most apt way of defining their historical and cultural experience in an America that prides itself on being "a nation of immigrants."

Delegate Rawlings' bill represents an affirmation of this positive development as it relates to official references in state laws and documents. It is a step members of the General Assembly should embrace during their current session.

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