When I was born, my mother named me Merlene, a compilation of her middle name, Merle, and an ending that must have sounded good at the time.
As I grew older and entered school, I realized that some folks simply could not pronounce my name correctly, most often settling for Marlene. I settled as well and answered to just about any name that started with an M. It was far easier than trying to correct people all the time.
Those who knew me called my name correctly. Those who didn’t know me, I chose to leave in the dark.
I thought about that when I read recently that the U.S. Census Bureau is removing Negro from its surveys as a designation that black people can choose in categorizing themselves.
Starting next year, when the annual American Community Survey is distributed to 3.5 million homes in the United States, the agency is giving black folk two choices: black or African-American.
I can hear folks groaning now: “Why can’t they figure out what they want to be called?”
But, see, that is the point.
Black people didn’t suddenly wake up on the shores of America and say, “I want to be called Negro.” It was a name bestowed on my race, some say, by Portuguese and Spanish explorers who used their word for black when they saw the people of southern Africa.
Seems that with those countries so close to the African continent geographically, they would have seen black people before the 1400s, when the word supposedly took root. Maybe before that date, people simply were designated by their countries of origin rather than their skin color. Country boundaries in sub-Saharan Africa might have been too fluid for that, however.
Regardless, black people thereafter were called Negroes or the other N-word when they reached these shores. Through the years, colored became the polite word to use for some reason, but my parents and other older black folk taught me to accept Negro as the best of the three choices.
It was like Marlene or Mirlen. It wasn’t worth fighting over. Take it and move on.
In the 1960s, being called “black” became empowering. Young black radicals were shouting, “Black power!” and the Black Panthers were standing tall against “the oppressors.”
As I graduated high school and came to the University of Kentucky, Nina Simone was singing To Be Young, Gifted and Black, and I donned that identity proudly.
My mother, however, was embarrassed and humiliated by the term. Negro was a pretty way to say black because black was ugly, she thought. She clung to Negro, a less antagonizing or threatening term, while her daughters wore Afros and marched for civil rights.
Where had she gone wrong?
I remember almost choking on my food the day we watched the evening news and saw blood trickling down the faces of beaten protesters as dozens were shoved into a police wagon, and my mother said being black shouldn’t be so hard.
I never again heard her use the term Negro.
It was like me insisting that my name is Merlene.
In December, 1988, Jesse Jackson announced, in a Chicago news conference along with the leaders of 75 black groups and agencies, that we weren’t going to be black anymore. We were going to be known as African-American.
We weren’t going to be a color; we were going to be an ethnic group, connected to a land mass, just as Italian-Americans, Polish-Americans or Russian-Americans were.
Some black people have a problem with African-American, but I see the term as historically correct. Africa is the continent of origin for most black people.
But even though the designation is historically correct, and I sometimes use it in describing my race, I prefer black. It is what I identify with. It’s like saying Merle.
No one I know identifies with Negro. So I’m quite pleased that the Census has narrowed our choices to two. Now, Census officials are trying to figure out a way to narrow the “Hispanics, Latino or Spanish origin” category, which pleases no one of that ethnicity. A survey revealed that they preferred instead to be identified by their families’ home countries.
If the past is a clue, the change might take a while, but we should make every effort to allow people to identify themselves.
Our response to those self designations is how people know we care.