3/5th human. This legal designation–insidiously imposed on slaves–was the wicked comprise that paved the way for the United States Constitution. After ripping the sons and daughters of “Africa” away from their homes, turning once free people into chattel and unleashing a genocide upon untold millions, dehumanizing “black” people was the devil’s bargain that gave birth to our Republic.
It took seventy-eight years, a war that took the lives of more than 620,000 people and an unending struggle for freedom before the 3/5th designation was abolished. The 13th Amendment, ratified on July 9th, 1868, finally nullified Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution and made “black” people whole–on paper at least. However, freedom did not mean equality; shortly after the Great Reconstruction, systematic slavery was supplanted by systemic oppression and structural racism that continues to haunt the descendants of slaves to this day.
Survival was victory, the resilience of “black” people in America is a story of exodus unparalleled in history in terms of breadth and duration. In all honesty, even though I am of the same complexion, even I don’t understand and appreciate the full scope of horror and tribulation borne by past generations that continues to haunt tens of millions of “African-Americans” to this day. As a first generation immigrant from Ethiopia, I will never know or feel the burdens of generational oppression that weigh on the shoulders of America’s holocaust survivors.
Fredrick Douglas noted that the color line would be the defining struggle that would shape the 20th century. The struggle, though, has multiple facets; some are obvious and evident while others are hidden and camouflaged. Jim Crow, segregation and indentured servitude by way of penal codes are de jure forms of racism that continue to imprison millions. However, there are subtle aspects to the color lines that are just as nefarious when it comes to repressing “black” people.
My keen awareness of colonization that bled the continent of “Africa” paired with my fascination with words and the way they are used to create brand-awareness led me to this revelation. The 13th Amendment might have erased the Article 1, section 2 of the US Constitution but the downward stratification of “black” people was kept in place by other means.
Do you want to know why I keep using quote marks around the word black when I refer to my brown-skinned brothers and sisters? It’s because the word black was a moniker, really a racial slur, imposed not only on slaves but on anyone who hailed from the continent of humanity’s inception. Slave traders and depraved terrorists tagged us with that word not only to permanently brand us but to create a caste system in perpetuity. It worked to perfection. America has been turned into a pyramid where, in too many places, impoverished “black” people have been indentured to a lifetime of indigence, servitude and bleakness.
While I was living in Northern Colorado a couple of years ago, I ran into a brilliant academic adviser by the name of Duan Ruff. He worked at Colorado State University’s “Black/African American Cultural Center”. I went to visit him one day and we talked about a multitude of things—I was deeply impressed by his wisdom. After we were done with our conversation, he stepped outside of his office and joined a group of “black” students in a session they called “real talk”. Upon concluding the group dialogue, he gave them words of encouragement and finished by saying “remember, black is a position”.
I was immediately struck by his statement. Come to find out, each time he had a talk with his students, he would end it by saying “remember, black is a position”. The next time I went to visit Duan, I asked him what his catch phrase meant. He told me that black was a construct that was given to us, a way to keep social order by way of positions. Labeling us “black” was a way to otherize us and place us at the bottom the social hierarchy.
Sadly, without knowing it, we adopted this marker and accepted the consequences in the process. Words have power; what we say about ourselves have tremendous ramifications. To that end, what we call ourselves has an even more profound effect on our psyche. I’ve written on this topic before, the word black is one that has a litany of negative connotations. Grounded in the same root as nigger, black is a pejorative that ascribes all kinds of disparaging terms to us.
While we try to take ownership of it and have pride in a name that was given, we are consequently being bombarded by an endless stream of messaging associated with the word black that seeps into our souls. Far from giving us agency, the word black and the labels we hold onto are malicious forms of reductionism. Our history was whitewashed and replaced with endless lies by way of education and propaganda. Do you know that the Nile River was once called the Ghion River and still named as such by Ethiopians? Now you know why this publication is called the Ghion Journal; it’s a way to push back against the lies of politicians, academia, entertainers and the corporate-colonizers who own them.
Here is what I know to be true, no one in the continent that was once called Ethiopia–which was renamed to Africa to honor a monster worse than Hitler by the name of Scipio Africanus–was calling themselves black before outsiders intruded and unleashed an unimaginable crime against humanity. The term black was forced upon us by the point of a gun and manipulation of the bible by Europeans; it is a Latin word that has nothing to do with us. So then why are we taking on an injurious word that was levied against us by force?
Negro, Afro-American, African-American, black, all these terms were used at once to insult us by others and embraced to find identity by us. Eventually, we wake up to the malice of these words and adopt a different moniker. To be called colored people is now seen as offensive but letting ourselves be called “people of color” is acceptable? Not only is the word “colored” demeaning, as you will see when you look up the definition, it is also another way of differentiating us from humanity. 3/5th human lives on through these labels.
I write this article at the onset of “Black History Month” for a reason, not only to disavow the term black but to push back against the way we have been marginalized throughout history. The history of “black” people can’t be limited to one month—the shortest month of the year—and in the process used to segregate the history of “African-Americans” from America as a whole. The story of the descendants of slaves, which in retrospect should really be called descendants of survivors, is that of America—the latter would not be possible without the former.
While they make it seem like they are concerned about equality, what the establishment is really doing is ghettoizing all of us. They place us behind the walls of labels that have nothing to do with us to sectionalize society and induce tribalism. This is how “Africa” was colonized, they divide us and we defeat ourselves. The various demagogues who are pushed by mainstream media and given platforms to speak half-truths to power are not there to address injustice but to keep us permanently ruptured.
There is not one person in this world who is really black or white but indoctrination has a way of overriding logic.
However, let me pause and stipulate a few things. First and foremost, my aim is not to be condescending or to piously “teach” others what they should or should not call themselves. Doing so would be the same form of imposition that I wrote against in this article. My hope is to spark conversations and to engender a spirit of questioning what we are forced-fed to believe. As I noted above, I have to tread lightly on this issue; the pain of not being displaced by force and losing identity in the process is one that I only know from a distance. I understand that these labels give a sense of belonging to people whose roots have been erased, I am not blind to these reasons.
To those whom much is given, much is expected. I used to always think that this adage was about wealthy people having the burden to give back to the rest. I was wrong, the wealthy will not mend suffering because they are too busy profiting from it. They would rather burn in hell with their money than get to heaven without it. The people who are expected to do much and whom were given much are not the wealthy but the downtrodden and oppressed. Those who have been hurt the most have the most power, for in them there is the possibility of renewal and awakening for others.
Bitterness is a pathway to jail but compassion is a doorway to redemption. In the souls of the most oppressed reside the possibility to galvanize the public, those who have been harmed have the ability to heal. This is why firebrands are continually being foisted upon us; the establishment is trying to keep us perpetually distracted by inciting our emotions. One day, if and when people of all stripes decide to walk away from labels and act in one accord, this capital system that bludgeons billions globally would be over.
If you are fighting injustice through sectional movements, regardless of how much energy you expend, you are actually furthering oppression. The strength of the system is division, its only weakness is unity of the the people::
— Teodrose Fikre ✒ (@TeodroseFikre) February 1, 2019
We cannot defeat hate with bitterness and we must not let our hearts seek vindictiveness. I know what I write might sound quaint given the time of anger and vengeance we live in, but just know that if we want to make a difference in this world, our only hope is compassion. Notice that I did not bash “white people” in this article nor did I blame all for the sins of a few. We can relay our hurts and struggles without dismissing the burdens others face. Instead of pointing fingers, let us extend a hand towards others who suffer.
When seeking justice, we must be inclusive even if we are excluded at this moment. Moreover, collective judgement and guilt is immoral, the victims of oppression do not have a right to miscarry justice. There is nothing to be gained by arguing who has it worse, realize we are all in the skillet together, regardless of who’s in the middle or who’s in the periphery. No more revolutions of the gun, let us evolve through love.
But before we get to that step, we must first heal within. Bob Marley, a prophet with a guitar, once sang that we must “emancipate ourselves from mental slavery”. The chains at the feet that enslaved millions were the easiest to be free from, the harder part is to free ourselves from the chains that shackle our minds. I know this is going to be met with resistance by a lot of people; asking folks to stop calling themselves black or the myriad of labels we have been given is one that will lead to more anger than it does approval. I just hope that a seed has been planted in the minds of some and that this seed will one day lead to redemption for those who seek it. #WeAreNotBlack Click To Tweet
Here is my hope for anyone reading this and for all those who are reading this article in the future. Don’t depend on labels imposed on us by nefarious monsters to find meaning. We are humans first and foremost. As far as the legacies of our ancestors, their spirit of defiance and resilience lives within us. I hope you take the time to watch the video below that I put together while I was in Colorado, listen with intent as you watch the it, and as you are moved by it, reject these labels and defy what was always meant to reduce us.
Here is to audacity, not the type of politicians meant to deceive us but one of hope by a sojourner. Use social media for a purpose and use #WeAreNotBlack to spread this message, share this article and impress upon others to watch the video below. Let us stop following trends and set them instead. After that, start a conversation from the ground up and let the change come from us. Because none will free our minds except for us.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” ~ Martin Luther King Jr.
This article was written at Howard University’s Founders Hall, life is poetic, Howard University is the first “black” university, may it one day lead us out of the bondage of the past and deliver us into liberation. Howard University’s mascot is the Bison, reminds me of Bob Marley’s song, Buffalo Soldier–life is a poetry.
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Originally from Ethiopia with roots to Atse Tewodros II, Lij Teodrose is a former community organizer whose writing was incorporated into Barack Obama's South Carolina primary victory speech in 2008. He pivoted away from politics and decided to stand for collective justice after experiencing the reality of the forgotten masses. His writing defies conventional wisdom and challenges readers to look outside the constraints of labels and ideologies that serve to splinter the people. Lij Teodrose uses his pen to give a voice to the voiceless and to speak truth to power.
Latest posts by Lij Teodrose Fikremariam (see all)
- A Matter of Life or Death: We Cannot Afford to Ignore Mental Illnesses Any Longer - August 17, 2019
- The Mindless Cycle of Violence Continues - August 6, 2019
- Why am I a “Person of Color”? - July 26, 2019