January 07, 2010

Black, African American, or Negro

The United States Census has always been mired in controversy, particularly with regard to race. We shouldn't, however, be surprised by this fact, as America's history is irrevocably bound to the legacy of slavery. Yes, I said it, SLAVERY. Since there is a "national amnesia", as Toni Morrison contends, about slavery, Americans are always shocked, disappointed, and or incredulous when issues of race, racism, white supremacy, or racial marginalization rears their ugly heads.

So here we are again. Question #9 of the 2010 Census asks the interviewee to select his/her race. The box allocated for persons of

African decent reads: "Black, African American, or Negro". As a caveat, there is a box at the end of the listed racial categories in which the interviewee can write in "Some other race". Hmmm....I'm going to offend my Black, African American, or Negro" brethren and sisteren (yes i know i just made that up), because I do not see this category as an affront to my blackness and/or Afrocentrism. Actually, I would feel obliged to write in "Colored" as well. After all, I was born in 1970 in Mobile, Alabama, and my birth certificate tells the world that I am "Colored". Yes, no lie. I ordered it just last year. However, as a scholar of African American literature and American culture, I see all of these racial signifiers that mark and label black bodies as cultural artifacts.

In my own writing, as the cynic and iconoclast that I am, often times, I use all of the signifiers strung together as a kind of contextualizing timeline. If we erase our history, we erase our present and our future. Dare I quote myself, a practice that I find a bit egoistic. Ok, what the heck. This excerpt appears in my Master's Thesis:

So, what are we to do with this legacy that we have inherited? We must have ample time to heal slavery’s wounds. In a roundtable discussion about this issue of transgenerational haunting, a black woman once asked me, “How do you propose we heal these long-standing, often times, unconscious wounds?” I answered saying, “We must first be allowed to speak the unspeakable.” For so long, the notion of slavery has been compartmentalized into a time period that many of us refer to as – “slavery times”. We speak of this “time” as if we can truly identify its beginning, its end, and as if our entire society is not haunted by its legacy. For black folks, there seems to be a kind of shame attached to owning slavery. For whites, there is the ever abiding denial and disavowal of the depth of its brutality and inhumanity. As Morrison charges, no one wants to remember, but we must remember. We must be forever cognizant of our embittered past. Other traumatized groups are encouraged to remember, encouraged to testify. The desire to bury the painful legacy of slavery is what keeps our society wounded and in a constant state of racial regression. African Americans must be proud, not only of our current successes and transgressions, but we must also be proud that we survived the unconscionable brutality of the middle passage, the 246 years of slavery, and the 143 years of Jim Crowism. All of this is our history. All of this is our present. As trauma studies teaches us, until the trauma is reconciled, traumatized groups will continue to repeat and relive traumas. Black women’s bodies continue to be a site of trauma. In order to heal those bodies, in order to love those bodies, we must understand and claim the legacy they carry.

Therefore, the 2010 Census question simply makes visible a legacy of struggle for Black, African American, and Negro identity that should be illuminated rather than hidden in shame. If we erase pejorative and sometimes painful terms like "Negro" and "Colored", then we erase all the history those terms carry: the Civil Rights Movement, anti-lynching legislation, Brown v. Board of Education, Plessy v. Ferguson, The Civil War, slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. Yes, we wish that these events had not forever changed the course of history, marginalizing black bodies for centuries; however, they remain a matter of record. All history must be told. All of the voices must be heard. If not, we simply have books of creative non-fiction.