A Black Confusion

My post below about Barack Obama and the ensuing comments led me to contemplate the swirling confusions surrounding the use of the term "black" and "African-American" in our language. Just the other day, my son, who has had the preferability of the term "African-American" drilled into him in school, asked me, about Ghana, "Aren't most people there African-American?"

"No," I said, "most of them are African-African."

On the other hand, Americans who actually have recently moved here from Africa, such as my Egyptian friends at the deli down the street or my economic mentor, Israel Kirzner, are never called "African-American."

So, is African-American really a racial classification? Well, it's not that either, because someone whose ancestory is mostly of non-African origin can still be "African-American."

A lot of the same problems surround the word "black" as well. One of the commenters in the thread above said "Obama is half-white and half-black." But, given that his father is from East Africa, his patrilineal heritage is probably a complicated mix of East Indian, Austronesian, Khoisan (see below) and "black" genes, where black is meant to indicate the fairly distinct genetic group that originated in the forests of Western Africa and spread south and east from there. "Blacks" in that sense are actually one of several genetically distinctive groups in Sub-Saharan Africa, others of which include the Khoisans mentioned above (think Nelson Mandela, who isn't genetically "black" at all!) and the Pygmys.


  1. I didn't realise Nelson Mandela isn't black, thanks for sharing that!

  2. The Khoisans have copper-coloured skin, coppery, curly hair, and generally a quite different body shape then blacks. They are the oldest race on earth -- a Nigerian black is geneticaly closer to a European white than to a Khoisan.

    But, it appears, I am not fully correct about Mandela -- he is from a mixed group, the Xhosa:

  3. Sorry, Gene, Barack Obama's father was a _Luo_ & came from a district in _western_ Kenya. The Luo separated from the Khoisan very, very early on. The Luo belong to a very much broader group which used to be known as the 'Nilotic'. This referred to the peoples who lived to the east& southeast of the Sahara, who combined 'black' & 'Arab' features.

    In _coastal_ Kenya, there are many people who have _Arab_ ancestry. The Arabs have lived & traded on the East African coast for centuries. There's very little 'East Indian' admixture, if any at all: Indian labourers & shopkeepers came to East Africa only in the late 19th century. The labourers came to build the railways. Amongst many other problems, they found the local lions acquired an unfortunate taste for Indians. But that's another story.

    Incidentally -- I don't know how PC this is -- South African blacks are amused/outraged when US blacks are referred to as 'blacks'. The South Africans regard US blacks as 'coloured' -- i.e., closer to the mixed-race 'Cape Coloured' people.

  4. Anonymous10:18 AM

    Let's develop a system whereby we can display
    ALL the various genetic ancestry that makes
    up a human, right on their foreheads! Then we'd
    get the real story about everyone. We could
    call this system: Positive Eugenic Relationship
    Stratum Order Name, or PERSON for short. All humans
    would then be referred to by their PERSON
    identifier. Since most humans have so many
    different racial components in them, and therefore
    their PERSON identifier could be very long and
    difficult to pronounce, to make things easier
    we would just refer to people as, a PERSON!

    Thank you for your time...

  5. Please see my comment under the original Obama posting.

  6. Hi, Sudha.

    1) The Khoisans occupied Africa up to the horn at one point -- I am merely assuming that presence would leave some genetic trace among the subsequent occupiers of the area.
    2) The East Indians did not move en masse to East Africa until the 1800s, true, but they have been trading there for over 2000 years. Again, I just assume a presence that extended would leave some genetic trace.

  7. Anonymous10:44 PM


    Indian trade was with the Red Sea ports, rather than East Africa. It was the Arabs who traded along the East African coast. In any case, Obama's father came from _western_ Kenya, well into the interior, not from the coast at all.

  8. Well, I'm in Wales and my atlas of world history is in the States, but I'm pretty sure it showed trade routes in 100 BC directly from India to East Africa.

  9. Anonymous8:39 AM

    Yes of course (1) there was trade between the Romans & Kerala -- Roman coins were found there. Roman traders also went to East Africa & thence to South India.(2) Jewish traders from _Cairo_ travelled to _Kerala_ to buy pepper & other spices. Documents from the Cairo Genizah have been studied extensively. At least 3 hefty volumes have resulted.
    (3)And there were _Arab_ traders who settled in Kerala & also traded with East Africa. Their descendants live in Kerala to this day -- the Mapillas, who are Muslims, of course. But _Indian_ traders from Gujarat went to the Red Sea ports.

  10. Anonymous1:45 PM

    African-American is a social category. It includes anyone who had at least one ancestor who was a slave from Africa (unless they can pass for white). Some folks look like African-Americans but are not, eg West Indians and darker Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. Barack Obama also looks like an African-American and in more loose use of the term may claim to be one. Theresa Heinz-Kerry cannot even though she is from Africa.

  11. Anonymous6:44 PM

    I thnk it would help his chances if he added an apostrophe to his name - ie O'Bama

  12. Anonymous9:30 AM

    Great article! Thanks.

  13. Anonymous3:15 PM

    Thanks for interesting article.

  14. Anonymous5:25 AM

    Excellent website. Good work. Very useful. I will bookmark!


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