Reference > Usage > American Heritage® Book of English Usage > 6. Names and Labels > § 2. African American / Afro-American
The American Heritage® Book of English Usage.
A Practical and Authoritative Guide to Contemporary English.  1996.

6. Names and Labels: Social, Racial, and Ethnic Terms

§ 2. African American / Afro-American

During American colonial and early national times, black slaves and freemen alike were often referred to as Africans, even after several generations’ residence in America. That this practice was common among blacks as well as whites is obvious from the number of churches and institutions founded during this period with names such as the African Methodist Episcopal church and the Free African Society. However, this usage fell out of favor in the 19th century, and it was not until the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s that black Americans’ African heritage was again acknowledged in popular terminology. Afro-American, which gained rapid acceptance alongside black during this period, expressed a growing, sometimes defiant pride in black American culture and its African origins. Afro hairstyles and African dress became popular in many parts of the black community, while Afro-American studies programs proliferated on university campuses.    1
  But in the following decades Afro-American lost some of its popularity, especially in referring to people, so that today a phrase such as the election of two new Afro-Americans to Congress sounds somewhat dated. To a large degree its place has been taken by the similar term African American, popularized in the late 1980s by Jesse Jackson and other black leaders and quickly adopted by many columnists and commentators, black and white alike. African American has the virtue of conforming to the standard model of ethnic American names such as Asian American, Irish American, and Italian American. Like Native American, it is most appropriately used by outsiders in public discourse, as in articles, broadcasts, and speeches, where it communicates respect by emphasizing ethnicity over race. It has the further advantage that, unlike black, its use as a noun in referring to a particular person or persons is unproblematic; you can say My teacher is an African American where you probably would not say My teacher is a black. But there is little indication that African American is poised to push black aside as that term earlier pushed aside Negro. Indeed, recent surveys among black Americans, while confirming widespread acceptance of African American, indicate a strong continued preference for black.    2
  As a noun, African American should be spelled without a hyphen. The adjective can be styled either with or without a hyphen.    3
  More at black and hyphenated Americans.    4

The American Heritage® Book of English Usage. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

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