I believe that I am black.
It wasn’t always so. You see, during the course of my life I have been called, by others, colored, negro, afro-american, black and the latest, African-American. These are of course the polite terms. I imagine I have been called worse but no white person has ever said so to my face.
As a young child I rode a city bus into downtown with my grandmother. We sat in the back of the bus. In these days before suburban sprawl and the shopping mall, everyone went downtown. I discovered that I was different. I was colored. This was a startling revelation since growing up in the ghetto you assume the whole world is just like you.
When Kennedy was killed I was a negro. They let school out early that day. I think that at the time I understood what death and tragedy was but I couldn’t understand what drove adults to tears and why he was considered such a friend to us, the negroes.
For a while I was Afro-American. This, my first hyphenated era, was a wild one. It was during the heady days of black power and say it loud I’m black and I’m proud. We wore dashikis and read “Before the Mayflower” and reveled in shared experience with the flower children.
I spent my college days at the business school of an enormous state university in the south. Approaching graduation, I signed up for an interview on campus with a visiting corporate recruiter. Years later that scene replays in my mind like the scene from the movie “Lethal Weapon” where Danny Glover sits down with a minor government functionary at the South African consulate and requests a visa. The functionary says ” but you’re black”. The words went unsaid but I understood.
I was black. My first job after university was with an enormous multinational corporation. As an entry level career development candidate I felt as if I were on top of the world. On a casual afternoon, my boss called me into his office. He was a short, rotund man with silver hair. He personified that syrupy, sunny corporate personality with that fake smile revealing only the top teeth. He sat after me and pulled a shoe shine kit from his bottom desk drawer. As he began shining his already shined shoes he looked up at me with that top teeth smile and said “you know Greg, the thing I hate the most about integration is that you can’t get a good shoe shine anymore”.
I didn’t share his fake smile. But I did realize in an epiphany of crystal clarity that in spite of anything that I might achieve throughout the course of my life, I will still always be black.
Since then I have replayed that scene in my mind thousands of times. I use it to keep me grounded and to help me continue the mission. I am a black man and as the first born in my family, it was my responsibility to set the example and provide the leadership to my brothers and sister in the absence of a father. It is I who will lead my family and raise my children to be high achievers and good and proud black people. I will lead my family past the terrible legacy of slavery.
Now, many people call me African-American in this, my second hyphenated period. Some pundits eschew the term because they say it separates us instead of uniting people.
I look at the history of the Jewish people people for inspiration. Throught millenia various groups have attempted to exterminate them. In spite of it all they have survived and thrived. But no matter what anyone else ever called them, to themselves they were jews.
I believe that my identy is who I am and what I have lived through. I will be the only one to determine who and what I am. Who I am will not subject to the vagaries of the latest fads of social scientists or the latest self appointed black leaders or politicians in a politically correct attempt to be all things to all people.
You see, I know that I am black.
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