Who would we be if we had not been defined? Why have we been reclassified over and over? More importantly, why have we allowed it?
According to some sources, the terms “Negro, black and Ethiopia” even, were names or descriptions placed on the Moors of the Northwest by the European nations in 1741. The origin of the names is not surprising. However, the fact that African Americans’ identity has been changed over and over is mind boggling at best. It is something I have tried to dissect, yet left to wonder how such blatant identity changes could come about without any pushback from the masses. But then again, with all of the injustice issues on the rise during 1940s and 1950s there was little time to squabble over a racial definition when people were fighting for their lives.
If you are over 50 and were born in the United States, your birth certificate will not list your race as African-American or even black for that matter. In fact, depending upon which part of the United States you were born, your birth certicate will indicate “colored” or “Negro” or nothing. I was born in New Jersey in the late 1950s and my birth certificate does not list my race. Still, on the birth certificate of a friend who was born in the same year, it says “colored.” She was born in Georgia. Do you see the conflict? When I asked Elaine Porter, an HR Executive Recruiter, about her feelings about this convoluted array of choices she said, “'Negro' is on my birth certificate.“ Elaine was born in 1959 in California. She goes on to say, “I'm old enough to be called "colored" and know when and why being such came about. However, there is no country or nation called “black,” obviously. I have come to prefer African American.”
I was a little girl during the civil rights movement. Growing up in the northeast I was shielded from many blatant injustices that my same-hued sisters and brothers were experiencing in the South. From a psychological viewpoint this seems very damaging in a segregated world to go from being called Negro to colored or colored to Negro. In fact, "Negro" has a rather interesting, albeit shady history. It was first used to describe Sub-Saharan African people, used by Spanish and Portuguese for the color black. In the first US Census in 1790, the demographic categories were “free white,” “all other free persons,” and “slaves.” Later censuses added other designations including the term "colored", which was replaced with "Negro" in 1900. Then in 1916, Hubert Harrison came up with “New Negro” as a positive way to describe a person of color “who fought against the ideals of racism.” We held on to the Negro identification for several decades. Whether it was out of some sort of allegiance to the Harlem Renaissance and the pioneers who followed I am not sure, but in the 1960s we became Afro-American. The term "African American" gained traction in the 1988s, and is now the preferred descriptor of many.
We are not the only race of people to be denigrated by name calling, but we are the only race of people whose identity has continuously changed. Even as recently as 2010 the U. S. Census Bureau considered changing our identity once again. However, because there was still a significant number of people, particularly in the South, who found the term ”Negro” offensive, equating it to the historical N-word, this did not come to pass. Interesting enough there are prestigious “Negro” organizations, which have been in existence since 1909 such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, followed by The National Council of Negro Women (1935) and the United Negro College Fund (1944), carrying out a long history of high acclaimed dignity, mission and service.
When I asked several African Americans how they felt about being called African American and their feelings about the classifications by which we traversed, what I found to be most interesting was the range of responses from my black . . . colored . . . African-American friends.
Saroya Fanniel comes from the viewpoint that “race is an economic construct designed to separate people from one another–-by class as well.” In fact, this has proven to be an effective way to keep races fighting amongst themselves. But it has not kept races from intermingling, no matter what class of distinction they may have come. We can certainly see this in our various hues. Saroya goes on to say, “African American may not even apply to all proclaimed African Americans since some have European and/or Native American blood. I prefer “people of color’” which refers to Asians, Continental Africans, Caribbean, South American, indigenous North Americans, including the Inuit and the whole gamut of folks with extra melanin in their skin.” I tend to agree with Saroya. While it is an emotional desire to want to have a direct lineage to Africa, many self-identified African Americans do not know what percent of their DNA can be traced back to Africa. I recently had an interesting text conversation with my cousin Holly Pittman Drew about color and the many times we have been asked, “What are you?” Now Holly is fair skinned and I am a shade or two darker. Yet on a few occasions I have been asked if I was Egyptian. Yes, that’s right. Recently while vacationing in Israel many people spoke to me in Hebrew until I told them I did not speak Hebrew. Still the presumption may have been that I was a non-Hebrew speaking Jewish woman – since Israelites can be technically be described as people of color. Anyway, not to digress, I learned from my cousin that she had a DNA test done by * www.23andme.com resulting in an array of answers to her ancestry and health traits. While she has asked that I not divulge the results, I was amazed and encouraged to take the test to discover the various percentages of my ancestry and health traits as well.
In 2003, I along with my mother and several cousins set off on a quest to Emporia,Virginia to trace the McGees’ history. What we found out was surprising. The McGees came over from England in the 1800s, settling in what is now Southampton County,Virginia, where my great-great-grandfather on my grandmother's father's side married someone of the Cheroenhaka Nottoway Indian Tribe. End of story. In later years I was told that my great-great grandmother’s father on my father’s mother’s side was, according to Indian census, a full blood Cherokee Indian, who also happened to be chief of his tribe, thereby forbidding his daughter to marry an Irish man. So while she had borne children by him, she waited until her father died to marry him. For me, like many, choosing to be defined by one race can be emotionally problematic. If you don’t think so, ask yourself how you feel the next time you are asked to self-identify on an application. The options are often limited. I know a woman who purposely checks off every box on these applications since knows she has white, black, Asian, Native American and East Indian blood as part of her DNA.
Even as I ponder this issue I am amazed and even insulted by the various classifications African Americans have been labeled over the past 500 years. It is a grave injustice and insulting to allow the government to define us. But it will continue to happen until we tell them, those who think they can define us, who we are.
In light of the Trayvon Martin travesty of justice, race identification has moved to the forefront, standing right alongside racial justice. As long as America refuses to call out racism in all its forms, racism will continue to lurk around under a shroud of mystery showing its ugly presence when least expected. We cannot afford to lose sight of the numerous identities by which we have allowed the government to label us. If we don’t name who we are, then it is no wonder that we continuously find ourselves at the short end of receiving justice.
Is the race issue on high alert? Yes, I believe it is. The way I see it is if we are not vigilant in focusing and speaking out on who we are, in another 30 or 50 years there is no guarantee that the government will not propose to impose another racial classification on African Americans, if in fact you identify as one. I would hope that there would be an uprising of the races refusing to let this happen. . . again.
Finding out who you are
*23andMe bills itself as "the leading health and ancestry DNA service provides reports on 240+ health conditions and traits."
Named for the 23 pairs of chromosomes in a human cell, 23andMe is a privately held personal genomics and biotechnology company headquartered in Mountain View, California. The company's personal genome test kit was named "Invention of the Year" by Time magazine in 2008.
The One-drop Rule and DNA
F. James Davis, a retired profesor of sociology at Illinois State University is the author of Who is Black? One Nation's Definition. In it, Dr. James examines America's long and curious relationship with race--or more specifically, what to call people of African descent once they became "mixed" with other races.
The "one-drop" rule of the Jim Crow South, meant to southern courts, that anyone with a "traceable" amount of "black blood" was to be considered black, regardless of skin color or racial heritage. This eventually became the defining factor for "blackness" throughout the country, even while designations such as mulatto, colored, high yellow, quadroon, and octoroon--some of them highly offensive--continued continued to be applied to people with various degrees of racial admixture.
Now that we have DNA that can identify our genetic lineage with a high degree of accuracy, do we need to redefine ourselves once again?