What's in a Name?

THERE has been much discussion recently about the pros and cons of changing blacks' ethnic classification to African-American. This is not the first time we have sought to clarify our identity and elevate our status through a name change. Since the Civil War, we have evolved from being someone else's slave or ``nigger'' to being freemen. We have been colored and Negro. And we thought we had solved our identity crisis in the '60s when we referred to ourselves as blacks.

Today, barely 20 years after we became blacks, we want to be called African-Americans. So what's in a name? Evidently, not much, if that name can be changed so frequently and casually.

Renaming ourselves every few generations has served no purpose other than to engage us in trivial debates that distract from root problems. Names have never furthered our cause. Self-reliance has. For example, as colored folk we had a thriving though segregated business community. We built respected institutions and viable organizations.

By the time we became black, the civil rights movement had torn down legal obstacles. And we had begun to exercise our options, attending colleges of our choice and spending our money anywhere on anything we could afford.

I did my part for integration in 1968 by enrolling in private school. For me, the Quaker institution was a study in contradictions - overt pacifism against the Vietnam war and subtle racism against the few nonwhites at the school. When I entered, I was a Negro student in seventh grade, naive about interracial relations. When I left, I was wearing an Afro and calling myself black.

During the transition from being Negro to being black, we conquered newly integrated worlds and achieved many firsts as a race. In our newfound freedom, however, we failed to patronize the black institutions that had served our community under segregation. So black pride saw the demise of many black businesses. Black colleges, hospitals, and organizations also suffered.

Not surprisingly, many of us today reject the notion of being called African-American. The ancestral lines of most US blacks can not only be traced to Africa, but to other continents as well. For instance, I am an African-American of Irish and native American descent (and God only knows what else).

Classifying me as black, however, also falls short of an accurate description. This was made clear to me by blacks from other parts of the diaspora. Because I am fair-skinned, a Panamanian friend once asked me if I were pure black, a claim of great importance among many West Indians. Several years later, a South African friend referred to me as Colored, the racial group to which someone of my complexion would probably be classified under apartheid.

I found both international perspectives offensive. What to me was a matter of pride was to my African and Panamanian friends merely a question of bloodline. I am neither thoroughbred nor half-breed. Like many blacks in the United States, I am all mixed up. And therein lies the confusion.

Most of us do not have the luxury of researching and traveling to chart our genealogy. Perhaps that's just as well. We cannot afford to rely on archival material to validate our worth. We must value ourselves when and where we enter. And we must love ourselves just as we are.

It is important to have pride in our heritage, but it is equally important to harness inner strength to face the future. What difference does it make what we call ourselves if the masses of our people are defined by negative statistics? Will the third of our population living in poverty prosper more as African-Americans than they have as the black underclass? Will African-American males gain any more respect than black males if there are almost as many of them in prison as in colleges and universities?

It will take more than a name change to keep youth in school and off drugs. It will take more than a name change to break the cycle of poverty that plagues female-headed households. It will take more than a name change to instill self-esteem in a generation of youth that is in danger of being lost.

It will take role models willing to make themselves accessible to inner-city youth. It will take leaders committed to addressing substantive issues. It will take families who maintain their links with the past and their ties to each other.

When we have what it takes to help ourselves, we will no longer feel compelled to constantly redefine our identity. Nor will it be necessary to wear our ethnicity on our sleeves. For when we know who we are, it will not matter what others call us.

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