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Black and African American Studies

A guide intended to aid research relating to Black & African American peoples & history, both within the greater Chicago area & within the broader context of the U.S. This guide will be updated in accordance with CHM's ongoing critical cataloging work.


The material in CHM collections may contain offensive language or negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record. The Chicago History Museum has an institution-wide initiative to critically consider the language used to describe people and materials, and we invite you to read more about our related projects.

Searching with Keywords and Library of Congress Subject Headings

Library of Congress Subject Headings

The Chicago History Museum relies on subject headings authorized by the Library of Congress to organize its catalog records. This controlled vocabulary facilitates the uniform access and retrieval of items in libraries and archives worldwide. Researchers can search headings in CHM's online catalog ARCHIE either in the general keyword search, by limiting the "All Fields" to "Subject," or by using the Advanced Search.

In Library of Congress classification, the heading "African Americans" refers to United States citizens of African descent. The Library of Congress also uses "African American TERM"  to specify when a more general term is about that group only, such as "African American lawyers." Works about Black people who are temporarily residing in the United States have the Library of Congress subject heading "Black people--United States." CHM recognizes the limitations of these and other subject headings, noting that names and terms used may be inadequate or misleading. Furthermore, some headings are predicated on assumptions that might contradict an individual’s sense of identity and/or a researcher’s intentions. While CHM librarians are working to mitigate harmful language, these Library of Congress subject headings currently provide a way to isolate records within ARCHIE. 

Headings that appear frequently in ARCHIE include:

African Americans
African American SUBJECT (for specific things, like careers, genres, events, etc.)

Note:  This list is not comprehensive, but meant instead as a suggested starting point.


Due to a combination of official and unofficial segregation practices, much of Black and African American history in Chicago is tied to specific geographical areas. We often think about these areas in terms of their neighborhood names, like Bronzeville, but these colloquial Chicago neighborhood names have shifting boundaries and names. Neighborhood names often show up in keyword searches, but CHM uses the city-sanctioned and numbered community area names in its subject headings, so we always suggest searching by those as well. The City of Chicago website contains an Official Community Area map. For instance, today's Bronzeville borders are within the community areas of Douglas (35) and Grand Boulevard (38), and small parts of Oakland (36) and Kenwood (39), so if you were searching for materials about Bronzeville, in addition to a general keyword search for "Bronzeville," you should also do a subject search for the community area names listed.


There is a long history of white, wealthy, male and Christian supremacy in official controlled vocabularies like Library of Congress, and often subjects, people and events associated with marginalized groups are left out of these official lists. We try to mitigate this in a few ways through our critical cataloging efforts. One is by creating our own local headings, and another is making sure people and events are named in the title or description so that you can still find them when using our general default search. Please note that in ARCHIE spelling does not need to be exact, but if you think there might be variants that aren't being returned try searching for all spellings. If you are not finding resources by using the author or subject keyword search, try using the general search with the people, places, or events you have in mind, in addition to the identity terms listed below.

Changing Identity Terms for Individuals of African descent, late 19th century to present

Most of these terms were all established and in varying degrees of use for individuals of African descent since the continent was first colonized by white Europeans. Therefore, the exploration of these terms is less a chronology of when the terms were introduced and more an overview of when and how they were used, and by whom. These are terms to use both when searching ARCHIE for materials, but also to look for in the historic documents themselves.

Please note that these terms are primarily for those individuals of African descent who can (or are assumed to be able to) trace their lineage back to enslavement within what would become the United States. These terms may or may not also be referencing individuals who immigrated to the United States at some other period.

Identity Term

Situated Meaning



  • Accepted mid/late 19th century
  • Appears to have been accepted by whites and Blacks
  • Seen as inclusive for covering individuals of mixed racial ancestry

Perhaps too inclusive; not focused on the specific histories of those of African descent


  • Adopted late 19th century as a stronger alternative to “colored”: As Kelly Miller (1937) noted, "Usually where deep-seated, philosophical meaning is involved 'Negro' is a much stronger term of the two. Try, if you will, to express the idea involved in Negro art, Negro music, Negro poetry . . . and the Negro Yearbook in terms of the word 'colored'; and see what a lamentable weakness would result in this substitution."
  • To capitalize or not? The NAACP sought to capitalize this spelling and achieved success in 1930 when the New York Times announced: “"In our 'style book' 'Negro' is now added to the list of words to be capitalized. It is not merely a typographical change; it is an act of recognition of racial self-respect for those who have been for generations in the 'lower case"' (Bennett 1970, p. 378).
  • Tended to be used as a ‘term of reproach’ by whites (likely due to its association with racial epithets and slurs)
  • Seen as being imposed on those of African descent by whites


  • Adopted in the mid 20th century
  • "Black" was initially favored by radical and militant Blacks in such groups as the Black Muslims and Black Panthers (seen as a component of self-determination among nationalist organizations)
  • In Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael [later, Kwame Ture] argued that "Negro" be abandoned (not the first or only person to recommend this term)
  • The capitalized “Black” is seen as a way of linking a shared culture and history among Black people in the US

The capitalized “Black” can also be seen as a way of stating that Black Americans make up a political constituency, and some see it as essentializing race (that is, that there is some core feature, cultural or biological, that constitutes a black experience that can be found in racial identification)

Afro American

[Perhaps] inspired by the cultural nationalist movements of the 1970s, this term has links to the Afrocentric movement of that time (but could possibly find its roots earlier).

It's not completely clear to us why this term fell out of favor to African American and other terms, but the Library of Congress officially changed the subject heading from "Afro-Americans" to "African Americans" in November 2000 (see November 29th weekly list).

African American

Became popularized in the 1980s when Reverend Jesse Jackson and other “race leaders” advocated for its use as a way to connect “their heritage to their mother country and where they are now.

Because many Black Americans cannot connect their lineage back to a specific African country, the “Africanness” of African American is seen as not as relevant as the Blackness of Black American


  • Included for the first time in the 1850 Census in the United States
  • Meant to describe people of black and white ancestry

From Ibrahim (2018): ““Mulatto” has a Spanish-and Portuguese-originating meaning that refers to both a “person of mixed race” and a “mule,” an interspecies hybrid. The animalistic quality attributed to persons of mixed race—biological hybridity and subsequent inferiority—was intrinsic to debates of the day about whether black people belonged to a human species that was distinctive from that of white people.” (p. 113)

Mixed Race

  • With the rise of multiculturalism in the 1980s and 1990s, the unique experiences of individuals with mixed racial ancestry became more recognized
  • Term is not exclusive to those with black and white racial ancestry

From Ibrahim (2008): “While many proponents of classifying mixed race advanced the notion that mixed racialism makes up a particular identity, the historical mutability between mixed race and blackness seemed to have been forgotten: historically, “blackness” had been constituted as a mixed-race category. Thus, tacit antiblackness, or a renunciation of black identity along with its historical diversity, seemed to be operative in the cultural and political push to classify and publicly claim mixed racialism (J. Sexton 2008).” (p. 114)


  • Acronym stands for Black Indigenous People of Color
  • Seen as a term of solidarity among people of color (globally, as a way to recognize shared structural racial oppression as a result of white supremacy and settler colonialism in particular places, like the United States and Israel)
Potential loss of nuance and specificity, particularly if used when one specially means "Black."



  • The Associated Press. December 20, 1988. “Leaders Say Blacks Want To Be Called ‘African-Americans’”.
  • Bennett, Lerone. Before the Mayflower: A History of the Negro in America 1619-1964. Rev. ed. Penguin Books, 1970.
  • Coleman, Nancy. July 5, 2020. “Why We’re Capitalizing Black.” Found at
  • Ibrahim, Habiba. “Mixed Race.” Keywords for African American Studies, edited by Erica R. Edwards et al., vol. 8, NYU Press, New York, 2018, pp. 112–115. JSTOR, Accessed 21 July 2020.
  • Litwack, Leon F. 1979. Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery. New York: Knopf.
  • Martin, Ben L. "From Negro to Black to African American: The Power of Names and Naming." Political Science Quarterly 106, no. 1 (1991): 83-107. Accessed July 21, 2020. doi:10.2307/2152175.
  • McWhorter, John M. September 8, 2004. “Why I'm Black, Not African American.”
  • Miller, Kelly. 1937. "Negroes or Colored People?" Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life 15 (May): 142-46.
  • Smith, Tom W. "Changing racial labels: From “colored” to “negro” to “Black” to “African American”." Public Opinion Quarterly 56, no. 4 (1992): 496-514.
  • Wilkinson, Doris. 1990. "Americans of African Identity." Society 27 (May/June): 14-18.