Tuesday, February 22, 2011

“Say It Loud! I’m…?” Some thoughts on Cultural Identity and Labels

After returning home from a mission trip to India, familiar sights and sounds flooded my senses and the US Customs official’s greeting soothed my soul: “Welcome Home”. Indeed, there’s no place like home, and it’s especially satisfying after returning from a long journey abroad. This was definitely the case when my daughters greeted me today! The welcome I received from them today must be a lot like the experience one receives when arriving at Heaven’s Gates! How sweet it is! Nevertheless, I often find that my times abroad have an interesting spin as an African-American. In other countries, observers sometimes look at my face and pigment in a more refined way, and can often identify characteristics not limited to one continent. On this last visit to India, one friend pulled me aside and after wrestling with his curiosity directly asked me “Where are you from? I know you’re from America, but I see many people in your face and actions. Where are your people from?” It was actually a very insightful question. Where are my people from? It’s a very important question in a world where many people know who their ancestors are back to many generations and where one’s birth language and name connote a history, a culture and a heritage that definitively informs you of who you are, where you come from and how you view the world and the people in it.

You might be thinking, “Sam, this is a curious topic considering you just came back from a mission trip to India and certainly have many things to report about what you observed.” True enough. Nevertheless, a friend’s question in a Facebook discussion regarding an article addressing racial labels and questioning the appropriate identity for the descendants of slaves in the US triggered my memory of the conversation with my friend in India and just wouldn’t go away. I understood his curiosity and his question caused me to think considerably about the way I describe who I am and where I come from. I also knew that any of the labels we typically use to describe the descendants of African Slaves in the US would be woefully deficient in answering his question satisfactorily. So, I set out to give an abridged history of “the Black Experience” in the US, focusing on what I know of my family history on my father’s side, which can be traced on paper back to a Mississippi slave owner born in the 1780’s. I concluded with the explanation that the people who share a similar heritage have been known by a number of labels over time, the latest of which is “African American”.

In my own lifetime, as the descendant of African slaves, I have been described by a number of labels which have resulted from attempts to create a meaningful identity for me and others who share my heritage. I heard the “N-word”. I’ve been called, “that colored boy”. I have checked the box marked “Negro” and said it loud, “I’m Black and I’m Proud!” I’ve also willingly used the term “African-American” with all of the intellectual processing that helped to establish it. Which one is best? I have no idea. Personally, I feel the term “Black” rolls easily off of the tongue, works great in song lyrics and just has more linguistic strength. Nevertheless, it still isn’t perfect, and doesn’t necessarily make logical sense in describing very light-skinned people of African descent like my mom, who in the eyes of many from outside our family’s context, would not have been easily identifiable as “Black” by a mere visual observation of her physical features alone.

In my evaluation, the persistent wrestling with terminology reflects the complex and painful history that is Black America. We tend to forget that once upon a time in our nation’s history slaves were intentionally and systematically stripped of their names, languages, cultural origins and any directly identifiable ties to the African continent. We also forget that steps were implemented to ensure those origins could never again be regained. The only lasting obvious connection is found in the physical features that remain present in the faces of Black Americans. In his book “Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America” Eugene Robinson postulates that what was once a monolithic Black American culture has now morphed into at least 4 distinct cultures which share a common origin traceable at one point or another to Africa, but having divergent views of the world today and the way each these groups process their places in it.

For those reasons, I’m not tied to any of these labels too tightly. I now check the box that says “African-American” and as late as last month, I’ve even responded positively to a dear older friend of an earlier generation who with no malice or intent to injure, referred to me as “colored”. Inside in my heart of hearts, I’m usually saying it loud, “I’m Black and I’m Proud!” Ultimately, I see myself as a human being and a child of God - a Christian committed to the service of Jesus Christ, seeking to be a peace with all people as much as it has to do with me. It is my greatest hope that others will be able to see Christ in me, and that in the words of the apostle Paul people will know that I desire to champion: “whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.” Those are all attributes and labels I pray will be applied and that I pray will stick. Until next time…


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