What is the correct subject heading to use for people of African descent?
Just as the history of racism in the US is complicated so is the history of “acceptable” terminology used by Euro-Americans to refer to people of non-European origin. This is especially true for those of African descent. Frances Yocom produced a brief study of subject headings related to African Americans for her 1939 University of California library school thesis. It was published the following year by H.W. Wilson and its recommendations were incorporated by the Library of Congress with “Negro” serving as the primary term. In a 1970 College & Research Libraries article, Amy Doherty asked: “How do we assign subject headings to black material? Do we follow the Library of Congress and put it all under Negroes? This violates the thinking of blacks in this area and might be construed as just another example of white racism at work.”
In 1971, in his classic Prejudices and Antipathies: A Tract on the LC Subject Heads Concerning People (a work that all social science librarians should know), Sanford Berman proposed a total overhaul of the subject headings for black Americans. As the primary term, he suggested that “Afro-Americans” replace “Negroes”; that blacks from Africa, the Caribbean, etc. be referred to by nation of origin (for black majority countries by country, e.g., “Nigerians”; and for black minority countries by the addition of the modifier “Afro,” e.g., “Afro-Brazilian,” reserving the term “Blacks” for works on people of African descent in general (for instance to describe George Eaton Simpson’s book, Black Religions in the New World), and using the term “Colored” only for the mixed-race people of South Africa. (Note: An exhaustive study of LCSH as it relates to black Americans was published by the late Doris Clack in her Black Literature Resources: Analysis and Organization in 1975.) Eventually, the Library of Congress accepted Berman’s recommendations. More recently the authorized subject heading has been changed from “Afro-Americans” to “African-Americans.”
So where do we stand now? There are several terms used in LCSH for people of African descent. According to the current Library of Congress Subject Headings, these are the terms:


  • 1. African-Americans:
    • Here are entered works on citizens of the United States of black African descent. Works on blacks who temporarily reside in the United States , such as aliens, students from abroad, etc., are entered under Blacks– United States . Works on blacks outside the United States are entered under Blacks–[place].
  • 2. Blacks:
    • Here are entered works on blacks as an element in the population. Theoretical works discussing the black race from an anthropological point of view are entered under Black race.

Works on black people in countries whose racial composition is predominantly black are assigned headings appropriate for the country as a whole without the use of the heading Blacks. The heading Blacks is assigned to works on such countries only if the work discusses blacks apart from other groups in the country.

  • 3. Headings qualified by “African American” such as: African American parents, African American leadership, African American actors, etc. And headings showing a relationship with African Americans such as: African Americans in literature, African Americans in dentistry, etc.
  • 4. Headings qualified by “Black” such as: “Art, Black; Children, Black; Families, Black, etc.
  • 5. The subdivision “African Americans” is used under military services and individual wars.
  • 6. Finally, the term “Afro” is no longer used except to refer to “Afro-Brazilian cults” and “Afro-Caribbean cults.”


One additional note: recent searches of the OPACs at a variety of (comprehensive, research, etc.) academic libraries found that in most, the older terms “Afro-Americans” and/or “Negroes” are still used in some catalog records. Comprehensive searches for materials related to African Americans would therefore also require searching the formerly used subject headings in addition to the current authorized LCSH.

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