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American Hyphen

November 19, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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CLARENCE PAGE: As America begins its most multiracial, multicultural century, some Americans are taking a new look at what we call ourselves.

SPOKESPERSON: That would be three.

CLARENCE PAGE: The 2000 census form, for the first time, allowed us to check more than one racial box. Between 1 and 2 percent of black Americans were expected to check more than one box. In fact, more than twice that many did.

Have our old racial labels become too broad to be meaningful? Or too confining? Musician Dave Matthews comes to mind. So does Teresa Heinz Kerry. Both are Americans who immigrated from Africa. That makes them African American by definition, but it doesn’t make them black. That’s wrong, says Republican Alan Keyes, who recently complained that he was more African American than his Democratic Senate opponent Barack Obama, the child of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas. A true African American, by Keyes’ standard, is not only African and American, but also descended from American slavery.

Similar questions arose at Harvard when black professors and alumni found that more than half of Harvard’s black students are immigrants or descendents of immigrants from Africa or the Caribbean, not from American slaves. Does the unique legacy of American slavery call for a special label for us, the descendants of that legacy? The author and linguist John McWhorter thinks so. He recently wrote that we descendants of American slavery should go back to calling ourselves “Black– with a capital B.” After all, he argues quite reasonably, Americans who come more recently from Africa actually have a stronger claim to the African American label than those of us whose families have been in this country for centuries.

After all, many other voices have asked, why don’t we all just call ourselves American? Frankly, I think most African Americans would have been quite happy to be “just American” ever since the first of us arrived here at Jamestown Colony before the Mayflower, but that choice seldom has been left up to us.

I’m old enough to remember when we were “colored.” We became “Negro.” Then we were “Black;” then “African American.” More recently I hear us called “people of color.” So I’ve lived long enough to see us go from “colored people” to “people of color.” Who says we haven’t made progress?

It was Jesse Jackson speaking in Chicago in the late 1980s who suggested we call ourselves African American. The ethnic label had more integrity than “Black,” he said, and I agreed. Some people viewed “African American” with alarm as if it were a divisive label. I viewed it as a step by black people to be more inclusive. It is very American to have a hyphen, at least for one day a year.

Chicagoans have parades and special days to celebrate their hyphens every year, from Saint Patrick’s Day in the spring to Columbus Day in the fall. With Pulaski Day, Von Steuben Day, Bangladesh Day, and numerous other festivities in between. (Bag pipes playing) New York, Chicago, Boston, and even Savannah have larger Saint Patrick’s Day parades than Dublin does. It takes a while for us Americans to be “just Americans.” Even then we are a diverse people, restlessly diverse, but united by our love of freedom, including the freedom to call ourselves what we want to call ourselves, even as we Americans keep changing. I’m Clarence Page.