What's in a name? To cap? Or not cap “black”? Oh no! Oh really? Oh what? I pass Pop your mind

What’s in a Name?

Re-becoming and projecting new identities from old ones
article image Daniel Minter, Woman in the Water, acrylic panel, 48 x 24” (Courtesy Greenhut Galleries, Portland ME)

Travel into Daniel Minter’s painting and deeper into a story about a black American woman swathed in a chrysalis about to break open and release her from racialized identity to who?

The woman is returning to West Africa among fish fat from the ghosts of the Atlantic — the black people who leaped to freedom or were thrown overboard during our passage of dis-becoming.

Who is she? Who are we?

Now she’s going to re-become the Whos of lost ancestors who will merge with those less past and more known.

Will she call herself some constellation of Whos, this re-defined Who she will be?

Who will she be?

The shift to uppercase black is an impetus to consider the next step in black Americans’ long re-naming journey from black, through colored, negro, Negro, Afro-American, b/Black (late 1960s), African American (see end note) and b/Black American.

The disconnection of African and African American identities has been extremely debilitating.

It is sorrowful beyond words that humanity’s literal Mother Africa is the planet’s richest continent in natural resources and is the poorest continent in per capita GDP.

Let that sink in for a moment.

The continent with the most natural wealth, including minerals essential to industry and technology, has the most impoverished people.

Be with that understanding for another moment and take a deep breath.

And if you feel sorrow let that sorrow be energizing! Black Americans reclaiming lost identities, merging them with known identities, and projecting new IDs based on that merger can be healing and empowering in ways that benefit black people as a whole.

Generic black can be a strong common name as our identities become more specifically self-determined.

DNA analysis is getting more precise. And interactive, digital humanities projects can help us restore the missing pages of our African diaspora histories and genealogies. The projects could map trans-Atlantic migrations, aggregate, correlate and codify genetic and genealogical data, and historical and demographic information. (The "digital humanities" term is a bit of a misnomer because it also includes social sciences.)

Most African descendants in the Americas have multiple African ancestries. Many have non-African ancestries as well. And because ethnicity is lived, not just genetically acquired, DNA analysis would not transform an African American into, for example, an instant, card-carrying Akan-Ewe-Hausa-Mandinka-English-Irish-Chotow American. We’ve not had continuous connections with these peoples and the mix is too extensive. Lengthy hyphenated IDs are good for genealogical restitution but not formal group names.

Here’s how it could work

A woman from Brunswick County, Virginia took advantage of a black history month sale at a major DNA testing company and received this analysis: Nigeria 33%; Cameroon/Congo 20%; Benin/Togo 14%; Europe West 14%; Ivory Coast/Ghana 6%; 13% unidentified and probably the indigenous Nottoway or Meherrin people of the Brunswick Country area.

The woman is physicist Arlene Maclin who now lives in Washington DC.

article image Arlene Maclin and her mother Alice Maclin of Brunswick County VA, 1982

The recovery of obliterated black identities and the projection of new ones can have powerful repercussions throughout the world. In imagining a constellated ethnic ID for Arlene Maclin, I discovered that her achievement in physics has a strong precedent in the Nigerian branch of her genealogy.

Nigerians can add Nigerian descendant Arlene Maclin’s achievements to their metallurgy legacy which, dating back to 2000 BCE, is the world’s oldest and includes the Benin bronzes.

Arlene Maclin has a Ph.D. in theoretical solid state physics and specializes in engineering physics. Her metallurgy research includes serving as the principal program officer for “Materials Science and Engineering for the 1990s,” a study published by the National Academy of Sciences which defined the field of material science and engineering and brought together metallurgists, solid state chemists, condensed matter physicists and others.

article image Arlene Maclin and physicist Alex Animalu at a meeting of the Nigerian Academy of Science in Nigeria, 2009

Maclin also supported the work of Nigerian physicist Alex Animalu, her former colleague at MIT Lincoln Lab, in founding a science academy in Nigeria and arranging scholarships for the academy students in the U.S.

Maclin later led an initiative to provide technical equipment and technical training for teachers and students at township schools in South Africa and kept an apartment in Capetown.

Of course it’s fanciful to link Maclin’s achievements to historical Nigerian ones through her Nigerian DNA but the romance of great civilizations is heroic myth-making based on actual occurrences. History is a story. And as we fill in the missing pages of both our personal genealogies and the collective African diaspora past, DNA digital humanities projects can be the basis of more complete histories and epic stories.

Even as we become ever morphing, multi-heritage peoples of color, the disconnect between Africa and the African diaspora should be closed and sealed.

At the very least, we should honor our lost ancestors by knowing who they are.

So who could she be?

The restoration of individual black American identities through DNA analysis will generate unique ethnicities.

The constellated ethnic identity of Arlene Maclin could be signified by something like this: Nigerian-c AMEI.

In Nigerian-c AMEI, “c” means largest “concentration” of ancestry from Nigeria, “AM” means African mix (mix of other African ethnicities), “E” means Europe, and “I” means indigenous American and abbreviated as I.

Nigerian-c AMEI could become further abbreviated to something like Namei in the black vernacular.

And given how young Asians love black American style — Japanese ganguro, Hindi rap, various Asian nationals and Pacific Islanders covering Silk Sonic’s “Leave the Door Open” — we might conversely be inspired to look to the subcontinent and borrow the Indian suffix “ji” (which signifies respect) and apply it to Namei. With that euphonious twist, the ID becomes Nameiji, pronounced Nah-ma-ji. Respect for the ancestors.

From specific to general, Alice Maclin’s IDs would be: Nigerian-c AMEI, Namei/Nahmaji, African American, black and American.

The actual African American naming could be more facile than this quick improvisation. We already have Blindian (black and Indian) as a model for what might be. The Spanish and Portuguese Afrodescendente is a more fluid term for African American and gets us past the hump of the latter term being associated with descendents of enslaved people in the U.S.

The hypothetical naming experiment demonstrates the extent of the variants. There wouldn't be too many variables because for most black Americans, the most prevalent basic elements are the same: West African (mostly Central West African), European (mostly English, German, Irish, Spanish), and indigenous American. There would be thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, if not millions of black Americans in several (but not many), new ancestral identity-based groups that could be formulated through digital projects.

Some people who identify as black do not have predominant African ancestry but being black is as much about how one is raised and socialized as it is about percentage of African DNA quotients.

Black American sub-groups have overlapping areas:

By the second and third generations, many of the African and African descended immigrant Americans are merging with other Americans.

A fix for the by-products of racialism: colorism, featurism & texturism

In the projection of ethnicities, African diaspora peoples should be mindful of how formulating finely-tuned identities can reinforce racialization. Colonial Central and South American countriesgenerated a hierarchical, exhaustively minute classification of people — over one hundred categories of variations of ethno-racial mixture!

article image Taxonomy of various mixtures of Spanish, West African and indigenous people in colonial Central America (Wikimedia Commons)

Intra-racist hierarchies and other drawbacks of making such fine ethnic distinctions among human beings can be averted. We see one way how this can be done in a discussion produced by Google in response to the 2020 summer uprisings.

In the discussion, black and bi-racial Latinos strongly identify as black while acknowledging differences in their ancestries and lived experiences. Their exchange appears to bond them even more deeply. It shows African Americans how we can restore and project our broad spectrum of ancestries, ranging from black to white, without diminishing our solidarity.

Reclamation would bring sweeping change to black American identity — from making the “Wakanda forever!” fantasy real to being ‘just Americans’ as Kendra Hamilton envisions in "Oh no! Oh really? Oh what? I pass" article on this site.

The projects to formulate those ethnicities and generate a complete history of the Africa diaspora could be the first step in a healing and empowering universalization process. Specificity and unity are synergies.

Paradoxically, by becoming more specifically identified, black Americans will be more able to transcend the limitations of identity. Vedantic philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan described the process in this way: “These two elements of selfhood, uniqueness (each-ness) and universality (all-ness), grow together until at last the most unique becomes the most universal.”

Or as the ubuntu principle of Bantu-language peoples puts it: “I am because you are.”


  1. The current thinking that Black is the most inclusive ID limits the interpretation of African American. But African American can mean African-descended people throughout the Americas. That was Samella Lewis’s intent in changing the name of Black Arts journal that she co-founded in 1976 to the International Review of African American Art in 1984. The first black American to earn a Ph.D. in art history, Lewis began researching the visual arts of black people in the Caribbean and Central and South Americas in the early 1980s. At the time she also was continuing to cover black artists in the U.S. In so doing, she was challenging the linguistic chauvinism of “America” meaning just the “United States.” In this conception, all people of African ancestry in the Americas can be regarded as “African Americans,” in addition to their specific nationalities.
  2. The word “indigenous” was not capped because all original inhabitants of all countries are indigenous.

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