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African means from or of the continent of Africa. It might refer to people from Africa. Or it can refer to products from Africa. For example, you can speak of the average poverty levels of the African people. Or you can, for instance, talk about the export of beautiful African crafts.

Some people might quibble with my choice of examples. Not everyone lives in poverty in Africa—far from it. That’s why I used the words “average” and “level.” You could also talk about the average poverty levels of the people of Beverly Hills, California. The average levels would be quite different, but it would be no less a correct usage of the turn of phrase in either case.

In addition, there are certainly other, more valuable exports from Africa than crafts, but it was just an example. I didn’t mean to suggest that crafts are the only goods to come out of Africa.

Despite those possible gripes, I think most people would think that the first paragraph in this entry was fairly noncontroversial. I’m not so sure about what I’m going to write about next.

The word African often get’s run up against a nationality with a hyphen in between, such as African-American, African-Canadian or African-Some-Other-Nationality. Some years ago, these terms generally replaced other terms for the same people. Some of those former terms were quite pejorative, others were less so or not at all.

I’m all for eliminating bigotry and unwarranted bias in our language, so that’s not the issue I want to raise.

My question is, who deserves the label of African-Whatever? It’s intended to be used for people who can, at least hypothetically if not specifically, trace their ancestry back to Africa. In some cases, that might mean that the individual was born in Africa. In that case, there is no question about the term African-Whatever.

However, it might also mean that the person’s ancestors came from Africa. My question is, how far back can your ancestors have left Africa, while still allowing you to claim the title African-Whatever? One generation? Two generations? Five? Fifty? Five hundred?

If there is no limit on how far back you have to go to find your African roots then you, I and everyone else are African-Somethings. Homo sapiens evolved in Africa and spread out from there. So, if you go far enough back, we all have African ancestors. Every single one of us, no matter where we and our traceable forebears lived.

To look at me, no one would think that I’m an African-Canadian. And, as far as I’m aware, I don’t think there are any records that would trace my family back beyond its roots in Russia. I don’t know how many generations back you’d have to go to find an ancestor of mine who lived in Africa, but I’m guessing “lots and lots” wouldn’t begin to do it justice. Thus, to call me African-Canadian would make a mockery of the term.

So my question is, what is the cutoff? And, better yet, why do we need these terms at all? You are a person. Period. You are a citizen of whatever country or countries you are a citizen of. Why does or should the rest of it matter?

Well, that was a bunch of trite, do-gooder talk, wasn’t it? Yet, in my opinion, it was valid and true nonetheless.

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