GUEST COMMENTARY: What it means to be a black American

Wednesday, December 16, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 1:01 p.m. CDT, Monday, August 30, 2010

During a discussion between a friend and myself the topic of what label Americans of African descent preferred came up. My response to this topic is I would prefer to be referred to by my name, my actions, values and my character. We both agreed that this was not possible at this time.

It’s too bad that our identity has to be colored by our race, religion, class, gender, titles, politics and other affiliations. If I must have a cultural identification, let it be as a black American. I am comfortable with black American because it is chosen by me. It is not imposed on me. It does not imply my begging anyone for inclusion and acceptance. I believe it connects me with everyone on a mutual acknowledgment of each others color. It does not disconnect me from anyone.

My designation as a black American affirms my high regard for other people of all colors, cultures and continents. I am a willing partner with every other living being. We share a common human denominator. Black American values and perspective fit me like a diaphanous gown. The old colored and African-American designation seem to me to be less precise than what I actually am at this time and place. I embrace my African history but the urban and rural black history is what I use immediately. That is the cultural well from which I drink.

I am fully conscious of the racial climate and context to which I affirm my chosen designation. I choose not to spend time tracing my ancestry. I choose to address the here and now. It is obvious that I am non-white in the United States. I am conscious of my blackness 24/7. White America can't even grasp that experience.

Being identified as a black American is empowering to me. It does not limit or confine me. It does challenge me. It affords me a niche that is as precise and omnipotent as I choose to make it. My expectations, entitlements and opportunities are evident enough for me to handle.

I use the treatment of other black people as a barometer of possibilities for me as a black American. Obama, Hurricane Katrina victims, the ravaged people of Darfur and Mandela show that there exists a range of possibilities for me and other black people. My actions reflect the range of opportunities and possibilities available to me as a Black American.

This is an enlightened black perspective that imbues me with a sense of efficacy. It allows me to be comfortable but vigilant. With this designation, I can honestly navigate through time and life’s circumstances. Some may have need for another designation such as colored, African American or even Tiger Woods' Cablinasian. Others may choose to try no designation. The black American designation completes me.

Again it does not limit me. It gives me a clearer perspective. I seek to use this designation to benefit myself and anyone I encounter no matter their designation. Black American is not a badge. it is a reality.

If I can't define and know myself, how can I enable others to know me?

William E. "Gene" Robertson is a Columbia resident and a professor emeritus for MU.

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Nathan Stephens December 16, 2009 | 7:56 a.m.

While I agree with the vast majority of what Dr. Robertson has posted in his op-ed, my rationale for calling myself 'black' is based upon the collective identity that I assign to the group. Being black to me connects me with Africa, the Caribbean, and many parts of South America. Additionally it connects me with people of African diaspora who are all over the globe at least on a melanin level.

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