Africa: Etymology and Modern Use. African is not an Ethnicity

How do you define yourself?  How do you label yourself? This is a hot subject these days, people are going in on the nuances of labels and self-definition.

 It is not a coincidence that self-definition and labels are coming to the forefront in this era of post-overt-racism/colonialism

Growing up in the U.S. as a Black person, the answer to this question is layered.  I remember working as a telemarketer in the late 90’s, I read the demographic question that is on every survey to an elderly customer on the phone,  I said, “would consider yourself…” and went on to read the list of races, the man on the other end answered, “I don’t know all that, but I’m colored.”

It was my first time hearing someone refer to himself as colored.  As a first generation “African/Black American” I don’t have elders who used that label comfortably, I only know it from history books.  Black people in the United States have been given many legal labels, colored, negro, African-American, Black.  Through college and my adult life, I have had many discussions and personal considerations about how to identify.  Black or African American?  Is there a difference?  It is a personal journey and though I am sharing some my journey and thoughts about the subject, I do not think there is a right or wrong answer, but I do think the nuances of labels should be explored.  

It is not a coincidence that self-definition and labels are coming to the forefront in this era of post-overt-racism/colonialism; these times call for intentional exploration of ourselves and our world as we strive to liberate our most authentic selves and plant seeds for a decolonized future. In the human timeline, racial labeling is a relatively new thing that was spawned out of capitalism, colonialism and racism. 

Lately I have been using “American African” to describe myself when the subject comes up, though that choice is never available on legal forms.  I came to the U.S. with my family as a 9 yr old, I was born in Ouidah and family/lineage is from different parts of what is now known as Benin, a country in west Africa.  I spent most of my life in the U.S., so American African seemed a good description for me. 

a big part of decolonization is the learning of indigenous languages and philosophy tied to the individual ethnic groups.

I recently moved back to Benin with my 9yr old daughter (talk about cycles of life!) and I noticed that most people in Benin do not refer to themselves or others around them as Africans or even Beninise, they describe themselves and others by where the person is from is from (Ouidah, Save, Abomey etc) or by ethnic group they are from (Yoruba/Nago, Fon etc), if describing the skin tone of someone, “red” is used to describe a light skinned black person, “black” is rarely used since everyone is dark skinned.  I did not think of myself as African till I came to the U.S., all this got me rethinking about the label African, it’s etymology and modern use.

Etymology is the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history.  Because of the differences between my now dominant language English, and my first languages Yoruba and Fon, I have had a deep love and interest in words, languages and their effect on culture.  I am also the child of a linguist, so I am sure my upbringing encouraged deep thoughts on language.  I believe a big part of decolonization is the learning of indigenous languages and philosophy tied to the individual ethnic groups.   Here is what I found out about the etymology of AFRICA.

  • It is reported that the name Africa came into Western use through the Romans, who used the name Africa terra — “land of the North African tribe Afri” (plural, or “Afer” singular) — for the northern part of the continent, corresponding to modern-day Tunisia.  As Europeans came to understand the real extent of the continent, their idea of Africa expanded with their knowledge.
  • Afraka: According to the Doghon University of Thought, it is believed there is a West Afrakan civilization in Mali identified as the Do(h)gons. The Do(h)gons“defined our identity as AfRAkan and while the term may appear similar it is unlike the word African in that it has a meaning that is defined by us and not a European explorer. AfRAka means “First-Sun-Soul.” (

Regardless of which root you choose to attach to the word, these days, especially in academics and science Africa is used to refer to the Sub-Saharan countries.  I was recently asked on an application form:

With which ethnic identities do you most closely identify? Select all that apply          

But I realized that none of the responses were my ethnic identities, which are Fon and Yoruba/Nago.  The modern use of “African” as an ethnic group disregards the fact that there are many ethnic groups in continental and sub-Saharan Africa.  There has been a lot energy put into correcting people who think Africa is a country or a language, perhaps the reason why it is hard for people to see Africa as a continent is because African is used as an ethnicity.

I spoke to someone recently who kept asking me to say something in “African” and the conversation made me realize that I am a different person than I was a few years ago, because I did not get upset.  I understand now, that his journey is different from mine, and that he was not trying to be insulting or ignorant, he was actually wanting to learn, and I honestly appreciated his excitement to know more about Africa and Africans.  Ironically, he was a veteran who has traveled the world with the American army, but let me not get side-tracked. 

Asking someone to choose African as their ethnicity is as incorrect as asking someone to speak African.  That is why my upcoming course is called the Fon Postpartum Nutrition and Care, and not African Postpartum Nutrition and Care.  The information I share is specific to the Fon culture.  I remember when I first came to the U.S. a lot of people would talk to me about fufu, expecting me to know what it was… not realizing that that word is not used by all Africans.  

For the application form that asked for my ethnicity, I chose African, Black-American, African-American and OTHER, and specified other to be Fon and Yoruba.  Africa is not a country; it is also not an ethnicity, and it is time we start acknowledging that in our written and spoken language.

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