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A hyphen's progress

Four years ago, just after Barack Obama came on to the national stage with an electrifying speech at the Democratic National Convention, staff writer Waveney Ann Moore pondered what the term "African-American" meant as of Aug. 1, 2004. Obama wasn't even a U.S. senator at the time. Now he is president-elect, and the prickly subject of race and the oftentimes imprecise labels that accompany such discussions have risen to the forefront with the election of the nation's first nonwhite president.

We reprint that essay at the bottom of this page.

But before you start reading it, here's some context. Moore caught up with some of the same people she interviewed four years ago to gauge their current feelings. (Some of them are in different jobs now.)

Progress aside, America is not yet a utopian, color-blind society, said Laura Washington, a professor at DePaul University in Chicago and a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.

"If you talk to the typical African-American, while they celebrate Barack Obama's broad-based appeal, they understand that we still have a long way to go in race relations,'' she said.

Washington noted that with Obama's election, the "one drop of black blood'' rule "is getting turned on its head."

"White people want to feel ownership of him,'' she said. (Note how often he is now called "biracial.")

"I think a lot of people saw past the biracial aspect. I think because of Barack Obama, there is a growing awareness that this is a significant part of our culture. All the biracial people I know are particularly proud and excited about his prominence and his embrace of it.''

Fredrick C. Harris, professor of political science and director of the Center on African American Politics and Society at Columbia University, believes that Obama's election is "getting people to think about the role of race in American society.''

"The role of race and racial heritage is a complex one in our society. I would venture to say that most African-Americans are multiracial, given that in our blood runs Native American, European and African blood. So in many ways, to be African-American is to be multiracial in some context.''

Obama and his campaign handled his multiracial background shrewdly, said Russell Adams, professor emeritus of Afro-American Studies at Howard University.

"The subtext of the whole thing has been this ying and yang, back and forth about how much to talk about the white side of this man's life and how much to talk about the black side,'' Adams said.

"In the civil rights movement, in order to keep the solidarity high, you didn't allow for any half and half. You had a lot of mixed-race folks doing stuff, but they were not advertised as such. Now Obama has opened the gates. From the time he made the speech at the convention. Had his name been Richard Johnson, there would have been less curiosity. But here's a guy with this name and here's a guy who did not hide his white mama, as others have done.''

Here is the piece from four years ago.

Originally published on Aug. 1, 2004

In the literal sense, rising Democratic star Barack Obama is African-American.

His father was a black man from Kenya; his mother, a white American from Kansas.

African. American.

But racial identity is hardly so simple.

When Obama captivated viewers at last week's Democratic National Convention, what did Americans see? What he calls himself and how others perceive him provide a sharp prism through which to view the meaning of "African-American" today.

Who is African-American?

Secretary of State Colin Powell? Golfer Tiger Woods? New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter? Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's wife?

Powell, born in the Bronx, extols his Jamaican heritage. Woods has labeled himself "Caublinasian." Jeter has said some people can't figure out what he is. Teresa Heinz Kerry, born in Mozambique, has stated she is African-American, "a daughter of Africa."

The term "African-American" gained common currency in the late 1980s, when the Rev. Jesse Jackson urged a racial designation based on culture and geography, rather than color. Such emphasis benefited other hyphenated Americans, he mused, why not African-Americans?

But refocusing the way Americans think about race has proven problematic. For many, the terms "black" and "African-American" are not interchangeable. For others, African-American simply doesn't fit.

Black immigrants — Africans, West Indians and South Americans — chafe at being referred to as African-American. They tend to prefer prefixes that harken back to native countries and tribes. And as the biracial and multiracial population grows, simple labels are coming unglued.

Obama was born in Hawaii and moved with his mother and Indonesian stepfather to Jakarta after his parents divorced. How does he define himself?


"The reason that I've always been comfortable with that description is not a denial of my mother's side of the family," he told the New York Times.

"Rather, it's just a belief that the term African-American is by definition a hybrid term. African-Americans are a hybrid people. We're mingled with African culture and Native American culture and European culture."

He added: "If I was arrested for armed robbery and my mug shot was on the television screen, people wouldn't be debating if I was African-American or not. I'd be a black man going to jail. Now if that's true when bad things are happening, there's no reason why I shouldn't be proud of being a black man when good things are happening, too."

For some biracial Americans, embracing or rejecting the African-American label can seem like a test of allegiance to the black community.

Why do people label someone who is biracial as black? asked Fredrick C. Harris, director of the Center for the Study of African-American Politics at the University of Rochester in New York. "It goes back to the 'one drop of blood' black rule," he said. "We have a legacy of ways that divide people by race."

"We force people to take sides and choose sides," said Laura Washington, a professor at DePaul University in Chicago and a newspaper columnist who writes about racial injustice. "My sense is that many biracial people have not been given that choice, because America doesn't give them that choice."

In the 2000 census, almost 7-million Americans identified themselves as members of more than one race — the first time those filling out the forms were able to indicate more than one category.

But self and society don't always see eye to eye.

Tiger Woods raised the ire of some African-Americans, whatever that means, when he referred to himself as black and Thai and came up with "Caublinasian" to reflect his multiethnic heritage. Halle Berry, on the other hand, who has a white mother and a black father, is said to have campaigned for her Oscar on behalf of her previously spurned African-American sisters.

Obama confidently walks the tightrope of race.

"I stand here today," he told the enraptured delegates at the Democratic convention, "grateful for the diversity of my heritage."

African-Americans and Africans each claim Obama as their own, said Washington, who has known the Harvard-educated lawyer for about a dozen years.

"He himself has talked about how strongly he identifies as being a black man, as opposed to Tiger Woods, who identifies with many races and doesn't see himself as a black man. A lot of African-Americans resent that and therefore are more likely to embrace Barack Obama, who does not identify that way," she said.

"People are excited because he is biracial and he's married to a black woman, so that makes him really black."

Russell Adams, chairman of Afro-American Studies at Howard University in Washington, believes the white community also sees Obama as black.

"The racial thing still says that in a biracial situation that the person is assigned the status of the lowest person in the hookup," said Adams, who is black.

The labels given to blacks have changed over the years, Adams said. Until the American Revolution, blacks were referred to by inherited tribal designations, such as Mandingo and Wolof.

The term African-American was adopted in some form in the 1880s by institutions and organizations, examples of which were the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper and the Afro-American League, which predated the NAACP's founding in the early 20th century. During this time, Adams said, individuals were referred to as Negro or colored, hence the organization's full name, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey made the term "black" both political and positive during the 1920s, Adams said. That term, though, did not come into full force until the civil rights movement. That gave way to Afro-American and eventually, in the late 1980s, to African-American.

The term recognized "an ancestral link," Harris said. Black immigration, though, is causing people to raise questions about what African-American really means.

"I've never heard a black immigrant refer to himself as African-American," Washington said. "I think that they see themselves in terms of the country of their heritage, or Africans in terms of their tribes. There's always been tension between African-Americans and black immigrants.

"I think there have been stereotypes," said Washington, who is black. "The things I grew up hearing is that Africans didn't respect us because we allowed ourselves to be enslaved and (Africans) came to enjoy the spoils of this country."

Obama's mixed heritage could improve the relationship between African-Americans and other blacks in America, she said.

"I think that one of the exciting things about this is that he is both a child of an African immigrant and is an African-American. He could help us break down some of the long-term tensions between black Americans and black immigrants."

In putting the national spotlight on Obama, the Democratic Party has set great hopes on the man who could be the third black person elected to the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction.

"Any time you have an African-American who is as young as he is and as accomplished as he is, he is bound to stand out," Washington said.

"I think that was the intent of the party, and they wanted to choose someone who would be embraced across racial lines. I think that the era for the Jesse Jackson model is passing."

"He is almost like Sidney Poitier years ago that fits a certain groove of expectation," Adams said.

"There is a nonthreatening quality about the dear fellow. He will not break the dishes. Secondly, there is that intangible stuff that Harvard puts on folks. I think that comes across. The other part is the exotic personal history."

A hyphen's progress 11/15/08 [Last modified: Saturday, November 15, 2008 3:31am]
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