Not a simple matter of black and white

The battle has been joined. Linguist John McWhorter has proclaimed to the others of his race in America that "it's time to stop calling ourselves African-American and start calling ourselves Black."

Jesse Jackson is having none of it. It is he who is largely credited with getting millions of Americans to stop speaking of the descendants of African slaves in the United States as "black" and start calling them "African-American" in the first place. "It puts us in our proper historical context," he said at a 1988 news conference he held to urge the use of the term. In recent weeks, in response to McWhorter's call, he has restated his continuing preference for "African-American."

If McWhorter succeeds in effecting a nomenclature shift, it will be, by my count, about the fifth in living memory, though I'm not quite sure how to count "people of color."

During this period, white men (to cite another, not quite randomly selected, control group) have been continuously known as "white men." There's no "rebranding" campaign in prospect for them, it would seem. That might be a point to keep in mind.

McWhorter argues that American blacks have only the most tenuous of connections to Africa, that their history is more than the story of slavery, and that meanwhile, immigration into the US from Africa has nearly tripled over the past 15 years.

That last element may be the most important in the discussion, especially in understanding why this is coming up now. A Chinese person who immigrates to the US and becomes a citizen is a Chinese-American; an Italian who does the same thing is an Italian-American. But an Ethiopian who comes to the US and becomes a citizen is likely to find himself misunderstood, at the very least, if he expects others to consider him "African-American." This is what Abdulaziz Kamus of Silver Spring, Md., an immigrant turned citizen and community activist, has discovered. He attended a meeting about health education for "African-Americans" and found the organizers pointedly uninterested in reaching out to African immigrants in the community.

Last month, Alan Keyes, the Republicans' late entry into the race for the Illinois Senate seat being vacated by Peter Fitzgerald, took on his opponent, rising Democratic star Barack Obama, as not being authentically African-American. Obama's father was Kenyan, but that seems to be a sort of technicality. (One could raise the perhaps more pertinent question whether Keyes is authentically Illinoisan, but this isn't supposed to be a political column.)

My personal favorite in all this is Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of the Democratic presidential contender, born in Mozambique of Portuguese parents, describing herself as "African-American."

Walt Whitman wrote, "I contain multitudes." We all do. We contain multiple identities: racial, cultural, regional. As an Anglo-Prusso-Celtic-American, I want to tread lightly here. But I have to come down on the side of more terms, not fewer, to describe all these identities. As a wordsmith I welcome the idea of rehabilitating "black," even as I am glad to keep "African-American." Writers are always in the market for more words; headline writers, in particular, are always in the market for synonyms, especially short ones.

We can trust that our language will develop, or borrow, the words it needs. It may be that the McWhorter/Jackson debate has revealed a continuing need in the American English language for a term to refer distinctively to the descendants of slaves.

Maybe the new immigrants from Africa have merely demonstrated that "African-American" is not - or is no longer - the right one.

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