Here’s a look at the origin of the term ‘African-American’

Mildred Europa Taylor December 21, 2022
The Rev. Jesse Jackson speaks on a radio broadcast from the headquarters of Operation PUSH, [People United to Save Humanity] at its annual convention. Chicago, July 1973. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

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 that, and then Negro, but not that, to be called black is just as baseless,″ Jackson said at a news conference on December 19, 1988, after meeting with the group of Black leaders. ″To be called African-Americans has cultural integrity. It puts us in our proper historical context. Every ethnic group in this country has a reference to some land base, some historical cultural base. African- Americans have hit that level of cultural maturity,” he said.

Though some had issues with the name change and continue to do, the term has stuck for more than three decades. In fact, many got to know about the term when Jackson started popularising it in the 1980s. But an article by Fred R. Shapiro from Yale shows that the term African-American has been there long before the 1980s. 

Shapiro said while doing a routine search for the phrase in America’s Historical Newspapers in April 2015, he was shocked to find the term in a 1782 sermon. The sermon titled “A Sermon on the Capture of Lord Cornwallis” and published in Philadelphia includes the byline “By an African American”.

The sermon does not show the background of the preacher but from his findings, Shapiro believed that a Black person from South Carolina who did not have the benefit of a liberal education wrote it. But Richard Newman, a scholar of African American history, told Shapiro that he does not think the author was Black or a person of color as the tone and style of the sermon are different from Black writing at the time. Edward Rugemer, an associate professor of African American studies and history at Yale, is of the view that the author was Black, considering the sermon was published in Philadelphia, where a lot of former slaves from Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware moved to after they were freed by their owners.

In the sermon, the author addresses “my own complexion, Ye who are my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh; ye descendants of Africa.” Amid the debate over whether the author was Black or not, Shapiro wants to make clear that before Jackson made the term African-American popular, it was being used, even during the days of 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 time before the change became effective. 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 percent preferred “Black” while 17% liked both terms. 

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

Way back in the 1980s, the Rev. B. Herbert Martin, who was head of Chicago’s Human Relations Commission, also thought the name change wasn’t necessary. But he was quick to add, ″I think the title or name African-American points us to a higher consciousness in terms of the origin of African people.″

Last Edited by:Sandra Appiah Updated: December 21, 2022


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