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Kenneth Hardin: ‘Black’ works fine for this American

I have an issue with the word “race.” Categorizing people based on skin color is more of a political and social construct than a genetic or biological one. So, it makes me wonder why some black public figures seem to be afraid to embrace the uniform they were issued?

I ask this question because several weeks ago a “Cosby Show” kid didn’t want to be labeled as African-American. In a recent Chamber-led political forum, a former local TV news anchor and current candidate for Congress asked to be simply called American. My initial response was to engage in a familiar idiomatic cultural response by incredulously screaming out, “What the, what the!” But, in all my initial indignation, I partially agreed with them. I think the term is a ridiculous, feel-good, political designation conjured up by people who want to keep the race debate thriving with no real effort at true reconciliation. On the other side, it’s an easy escape term for those who are uncomfortable with the whole topic.

I chuckle at those who don dashikis, take African-inspired names and celebrate African themed traditions but can’t designate on a map where their lineage began. Author and publisher Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu wrote in a 1982 critical analysis of the failure of black males in our educational system and workplace that if you teach a black child his history began on a slave ship, his future will be limited.

Several years ago, after watching a “60 Minutes” segment profiling Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., and finding your African ancestry, I opted to trace my maternal lineage with the intent to ensure my children knew their heritage extended far beyond a planation in South Carolina. I wanted them to understand their skin color had history, value and purpose beyond the movies “Roots,” “The Help” and “12 Years a Slave.”

The DNA results found that my lineage extended back to a Pygmy tribe in Cameroon. I enjoyed spending hours over the course of several weeks with my kids researching the African diaspora and taking in the Cameroonian history. I got teary-eyed reading the emotional testimonials of others who had made pilgrimages back, met members of their tribes and were welcomed as royalty. I was satisfied knowing that my children had a starting point and would hopefully never have to utter those painful words.

I try to be black on purpose, but I’m wholly American too. Please don’t question my loyalty and patriotism because at times I long for an unfamiliar history and unknown ancestry. Even though we’re allowed 28 days a year to tell the real story, I will never truly know it because it’s always under revision and victim to inaccurate interpretation. Regardless, I always stand at attention quietly singing the words of our national anthem, and rest my hand respectfully over my heart to join in on a pledge I learned as a child.

The blood that courses through the veins buried beneath my irrelevant skin color characteristic flows red, white and blue although the talons of that symbolic representation of America’s promise of freedom and equality have not always been as loyal and kind.

When I hear people utter those painful words it’s typically followed by an angry chorus of agreement from those who view their social condition through a narrow, privileged lens I’m unfamiliar with. But, I still remain American. When I had my childlike wonder snatched away at the age of 7 or 8 upon first hearing the word “n—–” hurled at me, I remained American. In my professional career, I’ve endured racist jokes, physical assault and have sat in many board rooms as the only black face with my integrity, intellect and competence questioned, but I never thought of denouncing my American side.

In my personal life, I’ve seen too many women recoil in my presence while clutching their purses and locking car doors. I’ve been followed around in stores, refused service at a restaurant in our city, and had merchandise thrown at me in a plumbing supply store downtown, but never once did I denounce the word after the hyphen. I told one of our educational leaders after she shared she doesn’t see skin color that sadly society does. When you start believing it doesn’t, you will get an “Aha wake-up call” that will leave an indelible emotional print on your heart and in your mind.

So, I will readily suffer the criticism for choosing to forgo the ridiculous African- American term. The Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes captured my feelings effectively in his poem “I, Too, Sing America”: “I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes, but I laugh, and eat well, and grow strong … They’ll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed — I, too, am America.”

Kenneth Hardin lives in Salisbury.

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