As I have learned from traveling, both within the United States and abroad, my appearance means different things to different people. As does my self-identified title, (black) American. In some places, even my own backyard, I am mistaken for someone different, a member to an ethnic group or nationality to which I confess no allegiance or overt hereditary link. I have written about these cases of confusion before, often stumbling to find the words to explain myself out of sometimes testy situations with the inquirer wanting to hear something I honestly can't provide:
I’ve had to comfort people who seemed distraught about my racial background many a time. In fact, I have even come to accept this half declarative/half interrogative sentence as a common feature of conversation. I am so comfortable with it now that I have my own little phrase to use as a reply. When asked “what are you?” or when my racial background is challenged with a “but you don’t look . . .” or “but you can’t be 100%. . .” I am known to reply: “My family is black, white, and Native American—you know, the slavery era remix.”
It’s hard to understand why black Americans ever tried to use the term African-American to exclude people. The black American community’s social and political power derives from its inclusiveness. Everyone who identifies as black has traditionally been welcomed, no matter their skin color or date of arrival. In Britain, in contrast, dark-skinned people who trace their relatives to particular former colonies can be cliquish. Beyond the fact that blacks make up a smaller share of the population here, this regional identity may be a reason that the British black community isn’t as powerful a social and political force.
I’ve never minded not knowing who my ancestors are beyond a few generations. My partner is an Englishman whose family tree is the sort that professional genealogists post on the Internet because it can be traced back to the first king of England in the 11th century. To me, it’s more comforting to know that, through me, our children will be black, with all of the privileges and pains.
On Mr. Obama’s behalf, American blacks have set aside their exclusive label. Polls show that about 80 percent of blacks who have voted in the Democratic primaries have chosen him. And all of the black people in the mountains of Morocco, the poor suburbs of Paris, the little villages in Kenya and the streets of London are cheering Mr. Obama’s victories because they see him as one of their own.
Black Americans should honor that. It’s time to retire the term African-American and go back to black.