A Look At The Origin Of The Term ‘African-American’

Rev Jesse Jackson


Thirty-four years ago, a group of Black leaders led by Rev. Jesse Jackson announced that Black people would like to be called “African-Americans” instead of “Blacks”.

′′Just as we were called colored but were not, and then Negro but were not, to be called black is just as baseless,′′ Jackson said after meeting with a group of Black leaders on December 19, 1988. ′′To be called African-Americans has cultural significance. It places us in our historical context. Every ethnic group in this country has a connection to some kind of land base or historical cultural foundation. “African Americans have reached that point of cultural maturity,” he said.

Though some objected to the name change and continue to do so, the term has remained in use for more than three decades. In fact, many people became aware of the term when Jackson popularized it in the 1980s. However, according to a Yale article by Fred R. Shapiro, the term “African-American” existed long before the 1980s.

Shapiro said he was surprised to find the phrase in a 1782 sermon while conducting a routine search for it in America’s Historical Newspapers in April 2015. The sermon, titled “A Sermon on the Capture of Lord Cornwallis,” was published in Philadelphia, and it was written by an African American.


The sermon does not reveal the preacher’s background, but based on his findings, Shapiro concluded that it was written by a Black person from South Carolina who did not have the benefit of a liberal education. However, Richard Newman, an African American history scholar, told Shapiro that he does not believe the author was Black or a person of color because the tone and style of the sermon differ from Black writing at the time.

According to Edward Rugemer, an associate professor of African American studies and history at Yale, the author was Black because the sermon was published in Philadelphia, where many former slaves from Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware moved after being freed by their owners.

The author addresses “my own complexion, Ye who are my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh; ye descendants of Africa” in the sermon. In the midst of the debate over whether the author was Black or not, Shapiro wants to emphasize that the term “African-American” was used before Jackson popularized it, even during the American republic.

It is documented that in the 1980s, activist Ramona Edelin, who was president of the National Urban Coalition, was the one who urged Jackson to convince his fellow Blacks to call themselves African-Americans. “Calling ourselves African-American is the first step in the cultural offensive,” said Edelin. “Change here can change the world.”

It took some time for the change to take effect. Three years after Jackson called for the name change, only 15% used the term “African-American” while 72% still called themselves “Black”, per a 1991 survey by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington cited by But by 2003, almost half of “Blacks” were using the term “African-American”. Only 35% preferred “Black,” while 17% preferred both terms.

Although the term “African-American” is widely used today, there are still those who object to it. “To call ourselves African reinforces a sad implication: that our history is essentially one of slave ships, plantations, and lynching… and that we need to look back to Mother Africa to feel good about ourselves,” according to John McWhorter, author of the book Authentically Black, who prefers to be called Black, as quoted by

Back in the 1980s, Rev. B. Herbert Martin, the head of Chicago’s Human Relations Commission, thought the name change was unnecessary as well. ′′I think the title or name African-American points us to a higher consciousness in terms of the origin of African people,′′ he quickly added.



Written by How Africa News

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