Further Antedating of "African-American"

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Mon Sep 26 17:17:46 UTC 2011

At 9/25/2011 01:58 PM, Jonathan Lighter wrote:
>This case resembles Cary Grant's use of "gay" in that current usage makes it
>difficult to determine what was actually intended.
>I find the implicit contrast between "African-Americans" and "free negroes"
>quite puzzling.

I do somewhat also (but see my next comment).  But this, of course,
is a problem only with the 1832 Edinburgh Encyclopedia item.  The
1822 item has "free persons of color, and one young black man".

>If the "free negroes" are American "freed" Negroes, why mention
>"African-Americans" at all? Wouldn't they all be "African-Americans" in that
>case? Why should "African-American"   exclude freed slaves?

Do we know how Brewster might have classified such people?  Perhaps
in his mind "African-American" was a term, or euphemism, for slaves,
and "free[d] negroes" were therefore a separate set of persons.

>Maybe they're Africans who are "free" because they were already living there
>and had never been enslaved. This seems likely to me.

In the 1822 quotation, that is impossible; the persons are all
Americans going to Africa.

>That would indeed seem to make "African-Americans" equivalent to "Americans
>of African descent."

As I suggest is the case for the title of the 1822 item.

>But it isn't that simple. Could it be that "African-Americans" really means
>"Africanized Americans," i.e., white missionaries who also settled there?
>This sounds unlikely by modern standards, but I'm not sure what the
>interpretation might have been nearly 200 years ago. Since
>"African(-)American" was evidently not a familiar phrase by 1832, it seems
>very possible to me that it refers to American whites living in Africa.
>Their number may have been negligible, but an 1832 publication may have
>given them prominence simply because they *were* white and *had* moved to
>Africa. This might be particularly so since Liberia is understood to be an
>"American colony."
>In that case, the "free negroes" would consist of both free (African)
>Negroes, and "freed" American Negroes.

If so, why would the Edinburgh Encyclopedia make a distinction
between "African-Americans, and ... free negroes"?

>In other words, no Negroes in the
>colony are enslaved, as a British reader might otherwise have suspected of
>an American colony founded in Africa.
>And the number of whites may have not been entirely negligiblel. Acc. to
>_American Colonization Society and the Colony at Liberia_ (1831; GB), in
>1830, "Four ships, with 315 emigrants, one hundred and ninety-eight of whom
>were emancipated slaves, arrived at the colony." Presumably most of the 117
>others were free black Americans, but the white population of Liberia in
>1831-32 needs be looked into.

Can it really have been more than some missionaries?  And the aim of
the ACS was the separation of white and black Americans.

I see that the Encyclopedia of African American History, by Leslie M.
Alexander, Walter C. Rucker, vol. 1, p. 308, in an article on the
American Colonization Society, says "the ACS published the _African
Repository_ (1825-1909), which was filled with letters from emigrants
..."  That might give some clues as to the number of whites in
Liberia.  This page also has a bibliography of 6 books and articles
on the ACS and Liberia.

>I can't say whether early usage would have favored the designation
>  "American African colony." GB finds just one 19th C. ex. (but no ex. of
>"African American colony").  The results for "... settlement" are
>comparable. However, "American colony in Africa"  turns up over 70 raw hits.
>Stylistically that was clearly the favored idiom.

Gates and Higgenbotham are more precise -- "colonies of African
Americans in West Africa"!  (_African American Lives_ [2004], p.
148).  (In passing, I read that there were 5 or 6 such colonies; one
was destroyed by native Africans, and the others all merged into Liberia.)

>As I read the 1822 passage, however, I feel that it is more likely to mean
>"American colony in Africa."
>Why? Primarily because the evidence shows that "African(-)American" was not
>a familiar designation for American blacks in 1822. Unlike us, readers would
>not have expected that meaning: at first glance, they might not know what it

"African-American" surely was unfamiliar when the first person used
it in print.  The 1822 article uses it in the headline.  I can read
its text as (secondarily to the news of the emigration) explaining
what the term in the headline means:  "the American colony on the
African coast", colonized by "free[d] persons of color" and "blacks"
leaving America for Africa.

(Jon wrote in a later message "in 1822, however, the emphasis would
have been on the white politicians and missionaries who were mainly
behind it, not the American blacks for whom it was intended".  That's
certainly not the focus of, or even mentioned in, the 1822
article.  Inferring in that article an allusion to "white politicians
and missionaries" from the words "American colony on the African
coast" is a stretch.)

>"African American Colony" has the advantage over "American African
>Colony" in that it immediately tells the reader that Africa is a more
>important element than America. Furthermore, thinking of it as an "African,
>American colony" emphasizes that the Americans are colonizing Africa,

The hyphenated "African-American" in the Enquirer's printing seems to
conflict with this interpretation.  I find it hard to equate that
with an "African, American colony".  (Speculation -- did the
Enquirer's choice of a hyphen one month later than the Spectator's
article indicate an effort to clarify that the colony was for

>something possibly more newsworthy than the idea that black Americans are
>settling in Africa.  But there is no way for me to be certain.
>It does seem significant, however, that *both* of these extraordinarily
>early exx. of "African American" can be read ambiguously. That's not a good
>sign. Nor is the fact that they come ten years apart with nothing at all in
>Thus I'm inclined to be skeptical of both exx. They require brackets.

I see both examples as at least precursors of "African-American"
meaning "persons".  Perhaps they require brackets, but I think they
both also require inclusion.  Particularly when taken together -- the
total is more than the sum of the separate parts.  And take the later
_Enquirer_ item, with its hyphen, instead of (or in addition to) the
_Spectator_ item.


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