Each week, I receive at least one letter or e-mail from a white person asking me to explain why blacks hyphenate their identity, referring to themselves as African-Americans. And each week, I receive a least one correspondence admonishing blacks for bringing up the past. “I didn’t own slaves, and I’m sick and tired of you people always whining about old history,” one man wrote the other day. “We need to be one nation and one people.”
I never respond to these readers, even when I believe they are being sincere. Needless to say, since the “postracial” Barack Obama, as many swooning journalists call him, has done so well in his run for the presidency, the tone of the complaints I receive has become more strident, contemptuous and mocking.
I have a long and personal history with the term African-American. When the Rev. Jesse Jackson first proposed, during the 1980s, that we adopt it as our official cultural and racial name, I was a reporter and columnist for the Fort Pierce (Fla.) News-Tribune. My editor asked me to write the newspaper’s editorial opposing the use of the term.
I wrote what I thought was a balanced piece that looked at both blacks’ desire to capture their heritage by using the hyphen and the possible downside of blacks symbolically separating themselves from other Americans and thereby causing deep resentment.
Over the years, I rarely have used the term African-American. For one, I see no evidence that it has changed how the rest of the nation views us or treats us. Second, my contrarian bent leads me to resist the name because its use has become de rigueur, and I try to steer clear of anything that is de rigueur. Third, using the hyphen has not stopped the tragedy of black-on-black crime that has paralyzed our neighborhoods with fear and suspicion.
Many white people who complain about the use of the term are shameless hypocrites. Others are simply naive. Most of these same people did not have a problem with the nation’s crush of hyphenated names until Jackson suggested that we place the hyphen between “African” and “American,” when all hell broke loose.
Until then, we accepted the use of names such as Jewish-American, Polish-American, Italian-American, Portuguese-American, Chinese-American, Japanese-American, German-American, Czechoslovakian-American, Cuban-American, Arab-American, Hispanic-American, Russian-American and Greek-American.
The hypocrisy involving hyphenated names is often laughable. Several years ago, a man with an Italian surname attacked me for using the name African-American in the lead of a column. I learned a few weeks later that he was a longtime member of the Italian-American Club of Greater Clearwater, in Florida. When I confronted him, he grudgingly acknowledged his hypocrisy.
In March of each year, millions of people nationwide wear something green, and bodies of water are dyed green. This event is St. Patrick’s Day, when Irish-Americans celebrate the Irish side of their hyphenation. We also have the annual National Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City that attracts more than 3 million spectators and 100,000 marchers. I was there last June, and all around I saw placards announcing “Puerto Rican pride” and “Puerto Rican-American pride.” Singer Ricky Martin was the parade king, and many of New York’s movers and shakers rode on floats, waving to the crowd, celebrating the culture of a hyphenated people.
Black History Month, which many blacks now refer to as African-American Culture Month, has just ended. Predictably, I received a lot of unprintable complaints. Many of the writers, like others over the years, did not realize that they were practicing a double standard.
The same double standard is at play when whites condemn blacks for bringing up the past. A man in Tuscaloosa, Ala., a member of the League of the South, challenged me, during a public forum at which I was the guest speaker, to explain why blacks “can’t forget the past.” Ironically, the League of the South’s raison d’etre is to glorify the inhuman and racist legacies of the Confederacy and the Civil War.
In short, white history still matters. But African-American history — slavery, separate-but-equal schools, “colored” water fountains, poll taxes, redlining, salary differentials, lynching and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment — is seen as being passe and should be forgotten.
We are being asked to pretend that these events and unjust practices have no direct or residual influence on the current status of black life in the United States, especially since the black man running for president supposedly has “transcended race.” I would try to forget the past if I thought history was irrelevant. But the past is relevant. It influences who we are now, and it will affect who we become. We cannot cherry-pick whose history is relevant and whose is not if we are earnestly seeking truth.
All people’s history, including black history — or African-American history — is relevant in the cultural mosaic that we call America.
(Bill Maxwell is a columnist and editorial writer for the St. Petersburg Times. E-mail maxwell(at)sptimes.com.)