The other day, I told my friend Rachael that I was reading a new book. She thought she recognized the title, but to be sure, she asked me, ''Is the author African-American?''
On the back of the book jacket is a black woman's photograph, so I said, ''Yes.'' But I really should have said I didn't know.
Just because you're black, does that make you African-American?
I don't think African-American describes me or almost any of the black people I know, who, like me, are without most of the rich trappings of African culture we should have in order to accurately call ourselves African-American.
Although I would like to travel there someday, I have never been to Africa. I also don't know where in Africa my ancestors come from; I don't practice an African religion or know a word of any African language or folk-tale, or how to cook any African dishes, except groundnut stew, and I learned how to make that from a recipe in Essence magazine.
If I called myself African-American, I think I should be able to be specific and knowledgeable about these things as they relate to my people, and I would have had to knowingly adapt some African cultural beliefs, practices and values into my own, or know enough about them to consciously reject them. But the farthest back I can trace my relatives is to Rockfish, Virginia, on my mother's side, and Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on my father's.
Being raised from birth on the east coast of the United States, I have virtually no African point of reference that was passed on to me from parents, grandparents or other relatives. Almost everything I learned about African culture I learned outside my family. Therefore I don't think I have the right to claim it as mine.
The culture of Africa is too vast and varied to be brought to the United States monolithically then lumped under the one generic heading of African-American.
I've heard that in some African countries, black people are kings and queens. In others, they live in gender-segregated dormitories. In some African cultures, tribal members believe that elders can rise from the dead, and people support themselves by selling vegetables or cigarettes at roadsides. In others, people speak Western languages and live in high-rise buildings and drive modern cars.
I hardly ever hear continents being used to illustrate other people's cultural identities. No one is just from a continent. I have never heard a white person call herself European-American, but I have heard people call themselves, for example, Italian-American.
The self-proclaimed Italian-Americans I know are Roman Catholic, or take pride in the Italian city their ancestors are from, or know how to cook lasagna, or at least know a few Italian curse words. Many Hispanic people I know prefer to be called Puerto Rican, Mexican or Cuban, because it is in those specific places that their heritage lies.
Also, being African-American is not necessarily synonymous with being black. In South Africa, people who could very well call themselves African are blond-haired and blue-eyed, and have lived as a minority oppressing the black majority. If a South African pro-apartheid person came to the United States and had a child, couldn't the child call herself African-American? The term does not discriminate along racial lines.
I have always wished I had a richer sense of culture, ritual and ethnic tradition in my life. But to me,being black doesn't make you African-American.
Elaine Tassy is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.